When one discusses the canon of Western civilization, much of that accepted body of knowledge came to us across a bridge in time and space, a metaphorical bridge built through the works of Arab scribes, working in libraries and schools from deep in Central Asia, through northern India and Iran, from Iraq across North Africa to Sicily and Spain. In fact, when we use the word“canon,” we are using an Arabic word (al-qanun, the rules) in much the same way we unconsciously use Arabic words when we say Algebra (al-jabr, connoting integration) or Algorithm (from the central Asian astronomer al-Khwarizmi, who wrote the first algebra text). As Rodinson pointed out, the image of the Arab world in the West was in large part a result of the Crusader era need to paint a simple picture of evil in order to oppose it. The reality of that world was much more complex and much more multifaceted than normally recognized. In both the world of the shining light of Arab scholarship and the world in which that scholarship was transferred to the west, the people who did the work were a varied group of ethnicities and religions, each of whom used bridging translations to transfer the work of the ancient worlds into first Arabic and then into Latin. In his discussion of the theologian ibn Rushd, Phillip Hitti [1971, pp. 233-234] elegantly summed up this process of cultural transmission of knowledge (my line breaks):
Thus did a Latin translation
of a Hebrew translation
of an Arabic commentary
based upon an Arabic translation
of a Syriac translation
of a Greek original
spark a momentous intellectual movement in medieval Christendom.