The original Enlightenment

The title of this post is also the title of an article written by Emilio Gonzalez Ferrín in the book “Critical Muslim: Reclaiming Al-Andalus” (2013). He is a professor in the University of Seville and he also wrote “General History of Al-Andalus”. He defends the idea that the official version of the European Enlightenment is just a social construct built by the creationists of the Renaissance, who need darkness to highlight their core.

When I studied History in my secondary school the Middle Ages, which where also called the Dark Ages, was the period between the fifth and fifteenth centuries in Europe, following the collapse of the Roman Empire. Moreover, the period called Al-Andalus seemed to be just a break in the middle of the Spanish history and it finishes with the so called Re-conquest run by the Christian kingdoms of Castilla and Aragon. Al-Andalus was present as a homogenous civilization during all those centuries when the main religion was Islam, and thanks to the Christians in the North it was liberated and the glorious Spanish Empire started to rise all around the world.

For Gonzalez Ferrín the Middle Ages are not dark but hardly understood because they are written in Arabic. Had it not been for Al-Andalus and its first renaissance in Arabic, there would be no Europe as we know it. The European Renaissance was not an absolute beginning: it did not emerge out of nothing. “For more than eight centuries, Mediterranean knowledge ranging from philosophy to astronomy, from theology to medicine, was developed, shaped and composed in Arabic, not merely translated into it. And this knowledge was delivered all over the world through commercial routes with a compulsory stop in al-Andalus”. He also gives two examples: If Averroes was prohibited in Paris, it was because his writings were avidly read. And if Columbus reached America it was in part because an Andalusian astronomer called Azarquiel invented mobile instruments and devices that permitted ships to sail across continents.

In this post I would like to add two more examples:

Ibn Firnas

We normally think that the first attempts to fly were committed by Montgolfier brothers, however the Andalusian Ibn Firnas tried it nine centuries before. This scientist born in Ronda designed in 875 two wooden wings with feathers and jumped with them from a tower in Cordoba. He broke his two legs when he landed, but he could maintain himself in the air for 12 seconds.

The international airport in Bagdad is called Ibn Firnas, and the road to its entrance has a statue in his honor. In Cordoba, a modern bridge is called with his name too.

Ibn Tufayl

He was a doctor, philosopher, mathematician and Andalusian poet from the 12th century. He wrote “The Self-Taught Philosopher”. This novel tells the story of a boy (Hayy) raised by a gazelle in a deserted island. After his mother-gazelle dies, he dissects the body and makes the autopsy. Finally he discovers that she died due to the loss of natural heat. This is the beginning of his way to the Islamic Science and self-discovery.

“The Self-Taught Philosopher” is one of the most important books that announces the Scientific Revolution and it is also considered as a precedent of universal literary works like Robinson Crusoe.


I have only heard about Averroes in my school and secondary school, but taking into account that I am from Andalusia, it is pretty curious that no teacher ever mentioned Azarquiel, Ibn Firnas or Ibn Tufayl during all my years as a student.

Note: The pic in the headline of this post is the colophon from a copy of Ibn Rushd’s (Averroes) 12th-century commentary on the Poem on Medicine written by Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna). According to this colophon, the copy was completed on the 16th of the month of Dhu al-Qa‘dah 1005 [1 July 1597] from a copy finished on 8 Sha‘ban 633 [15 May 1236]. Source:

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