The European Muslim Heritage and its Role in the Development of Europe

In a keynote lecture pronounced by Professor Salim T S Al-Hassani in September 2003 at the European Parliament in Brussels, he used slides and 3-D animations to outline the impressive heritage which Europe received from the Muslim World which helped trigger the Renaissance. He stressed in particular the need to remember contributions in the development of science and technology in the perspective of building an environment of understanding and mutual appreciation. We publish this text as a vibrant and timely plea for integrating the Muslim dimension into the history of Europe and in particular in the schools' curricula.

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Professor Salim Al-Hassani*

Table of contents

1. Opening statement by Michaël Privot
2. Introduction
3. Great testimonies
4. To overcome historical amnesia
5. Pioneers from Muslim heritage
6. Various instances of invention
7. A film for illustration
8. Concluding remarks
9. Epilogue

Note of the editor

This presentation was given on 15th September 2003 as keynote lecture by Professor Salim Al-Hassani at the European Union Parliament in Brussels (14-15 September 2003). The meeting was organised by the European Youth Forum, FEMYSO and MEP Roy Perry in co-operation with MEPs Glyn Ford, Baroness Sarah Ludford, Luisa Morgantini and Alima Boumediene-Thiery. The present version was revised and updated by the editorial board of

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1. Opening statement by Michaël Privot

It is a pleasure for me to introduce to you Professor Salim Al-Hassani, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Institute of Science and Technology at the University of Manchester. He received a number of awards for the high quality of his research and relevance of his work. For several years, he started a huge work with 30 researchers with the aim to remove from amnesia the wonderful contribution of Muslim heritage in science, technology, medicine and other fields. Based on his effort for clarification and research, Professor Al-Hassani actively participates to deconstruct what Alain de Libéra says in an article published in Le Monde Diplomatique as "the rejection of the Arab and the Muslim" which is, and I quote him, "something that took place and is so deeply rooted in our mentalities that European identity was built upon it and that all its future obscurantism was only a consequence of the prime decision [1]."

As early as the Renaissance, European identity was partly based upon the rejection of the other, the Arab and the Muslim, sometimes leading to the negation of the influence of other civilisations, particularly the Muslim and Arab. Maybe we are not there yet, but tremendous efforts still have to be made because you do not change in just a few decades the ideological basis upon which you can think, conceive, imagine and dream of a certain civilisation. The road is still quite long but work like the one we are going to hear about is key factor in the evolution process of improving perceptions and in building blocks for the creation of a Europe at peace with itself, reconciled with its past and heritage; a Europe wealthy of diversities in what is most stimulating and respectful of the other in his/her difference, and with a view to the universality of its references. I am faced with a knowledgeable audience to whom I am honoured to present Professor Al-Hassani.

The keynote lecture of Professor Salim Al-Hassani (transcribed from audio records)

2. Introduction

It is a great pleasure to be here Ladies and Gentlemen. It is not very often in one's life to have the opportunity to address such an audience. What I have heard so far was politically charged statements. I am not a political creature, I have been raised as an engineer, an academician who recently became interested in the history of science and technology, with particular interest in what I have named as ‘1000 years of missing history' . What do I mean by missing history? History cannot be missing. What I really mean is the history missing from our minds, from our normal day-to-day conversation, from our text books in schools, from our media, from the newspapers and from our various novels and magazines; a 1000 years amnesia. However, this history does exist, albeit hidden, in old history books and library archives. What I intend to do now is give a heart to heart presentation with no written lecture hoping to get inspiration from the audience. I can see that there are a mixture of highly intelligent people who obviously did not reach to this stage of their life without having used their inquisitive mind and seeking of knowledge and a role in society. People of wisdom say if you talk from your heart, it will go to the other's heart and this is my approach today.

3. Great testimonies

I believe that the most recent champion of multiculturalism is Prince Charles of the United Kingdom. I have attended a lecture in Oxford on "Islam and the West" a few years ago [27 October 1993] when he had this to say:

"If there is much misunderstanding in the West about the nature of Islam, there is also much ignorance about the debt our own culture and civilisation owe to the Islamic world. It is a failure which I think stems from the straight jacket of history which we have inherited. The medieval Islamic world from Central Asia to the shores of the Atlantic was a world where scholars and men of learning flourished but because we have tended to see Islam as the enemy of the West, as an alien culture, society and system of belief, we have tended to ignore or erase its great relevance to our own history".

Now, a search through the internet, reveals a spectacular speech made by a well-known American lady, Mrs Fiorina Carly. She is [from 1999 to 2005] the Chief Executive Officer of Hewlett-Packard Company. Two weeks after the event of 11 September, she delivered a long speech from which I have extracted:

"There was once a civilisation, that was the greatest in the world, it was able to create a continental super State that stretched from ocean to ocean and from northern climbs to tropics and deserts, within its domain lived hundreds of millions of people of different creeds and ethnic origins. One of its languages became the universal language of much of the world, the bridge between the peoples of a hundred lands. Its armies were made up of people of many nationalities and its military protection allowed a degree of peace and prosperity that had never been known. The reach of this civilisation's commerce extended from Latin-America to China and everywhere in between and this civilisation was driven more than anything by invention. Its architects designed buildings that define gravity, its mathematicians created the algebra and algorithms and enabled the building of computers and the creation of inscription. Its doctors examined the human body and found new cures for disease. Its astronomers looked into the heavens, named the stars and paved the way for space travels and explorations. Its writers created thousands of stories, stories of courage, romance and magic. Its poets wrote of love when others before them were too steeped to think of such things. When other nations were afraid of ideas, this civilisation thrived on them and kept them alive when censures threatened to wipe out knowledge from past civilisations, this civilisation kept the knowledge alive and passed it on to others. While north and western civilisations shared many of these traits, this civilisation I am talking about, the Islamic world from 800-1600 which included the Ottoman Empire and the courts of Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo and enlightened rulers like Suleiman the Magnificent. Although we are often unaware of our indebtedness to this other civilisation, its gifts are very much a part of our heritage. The technology industry would not exist without the contributions of Arab mathematicians. Sufi poet philosophers like Rumi challenged the whole notion of self and truth. Leaders like Suleiman contributed to our notions of tolerance and civic leadership and perhaps we can learn a lesson from his example. It was leadership-based on meritocracy and not inheritance; it was a leadership that harnessed the full capabilities of very diverse populations that included Christian, Islamic and Jewish traditions. This kind of enlightened leadership that nurtured culture, sustainability and diversity led to 800 years of inventions and prosperity".

4. To overcome historical amnesia

The subject I want to talk about today is the period 680-1680, generally called the Dark Ages. We are repeatedly told, against our curiosity and logical thinking, that history had taken a negative turn in the 6th century. After the Greeks and the Romans, all knowledge, science and technology disappeared. The world went into a dark and obscure period age. We are also told that suddenly and somehow miraculously, the Renaissance in the 16th century raised out of ashes. This is very strange. Because, first of all, it assumes history to be discontinuous. We are told that Europe lived in darkness. People who expressed any liberal idea, any scientific innovation, would be burnt at the stake. We were taught that our present ideas originally stemmed from people like Aristotle, Galen, Ptolemy, Archimedes. These became household names. Yet, we know nothing of what happened during the ensuing 1000 years until the emergence of the names of Copernicus, Galileo, Isaac Newton, William Harvey, and so on. About a thousand years missing from the history of humanity, because this subject has not been taught only in Europe but has been copied by other nations in the world. Even the Muslim world copied this concept.

Figure 1: Did modern Civilisation really rise from nothing? In contrast to the prevalent view in most Western school curricula and media culture, these two diagrams show that the classical Muslim world was the seat of a creative knowledge revolution that lasted for several centuries and was the ferment of European renaissance. See: Salim Al-Hassani One Thousand Years of Missing History and Innovation in the Islamic World: Learning from the Past to Design the Future.

What impact has this now on the mentality of our young people? They believe that humanity owes all its progress, all its scientific achievements, all its innovations and technology to the West, to the European West: It started in Greece, it went to sleep and it was awakened (hence the word "Renaissance") (Fig. 1).

I don't know whether you accept that. So, what I thought I should do is to explore and see if the world was really that dark, and if it wasn't dark, where and when did the sun shine over Europe?

Most people seem to think that Muslims are only good at calligraphy for decorating buildings and mosques. This is because they go to Spain, they see Alhambra in Granada; they go to the Muslim world and find all these attractive engravings on the walls. Now, those of them who are educated and lovers of art will recognize calligraphy as well as ornaments. Very few people will know the original pioneers upon whose shoulders today's civilisation stands.

5. Pioneers from Muslim heritage

Figure 2: An extract from a larger panel showing the diversity of profiles of the scientists of the Islamic civilisation. This pannel was mounted by FSTC for the exhibition "Multi-Faith Scientists" on the occasion of FSTC's Contribution to the Intercultural Dialogue at the General Assembly of the United Nations (New York, November 2008).

This slide (Fig. 2) shows the names of dozens of such pioneers. These people founded most of our today's scientific ideas, sciences like algebra, chemistry, medicine and you name it. The problem is, if you look at the picture of this long bearded person with the turban on the head and ask any of our young generation who would this person be and what kind of profession he had? Some people who are influenced by the media would say he was probably Bin Laden. Yet, this man is probably the most famous architect the world history has ever known, the Turkish Ottoman builder and architect Sinan. He built those magnificent monuments that stretch all over Turkey and the Middle-East. You then begin to wonder what kind of stereotype images are we being projected by the media.

Figure 3: A Qatari postage stamp portraying Al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham. (Source).

The next picture is that of Al-Hasan Ibn Al-Haytham (Fig. 3), a thousand years ago. He revolutionized the science of optics and changed the old understanding of how eye-vision is accomplished. He wrote 50 books, under candlelight, dissected the human eye, proved how we see by constructing a model of the eye ball in the form of a black box with a pin-hole in one side of one of the walls so that the image of an external object is projected onto the opposite wall. That box was called al-qamara in his time; we now call it camera. In his work, he relied heavily on the experimental method to prove his new theory of vision which contradicted all prior Chinese, Indian and Greek optics which was based on the premise that the eyes shun an invisible ray which illuminates the object and makes it visible.

Figure 4: Depiction of Al-Biruni in a Pakistani postal stamp.

Here we see a representation of Al-Biruni (Fig. 4). This man wrote 75 books, again on candlelight, on astronomy, mechanics, geology and many other sciences. We owe him a great deal. Like all other Muslim scientists of the time, he had no problem with being religious. There is an interesting story about Al-Biruni. When he was dying with close relatives surrounding his bed, saying farewell, a stranger walks into his house from a distant city, wanting also to give his farewell. When Al-Biruni heard his name, he attempted to sit up in the bed in respect to this young man, saying to him: ‘Please excuse me young man, there is this mathematical problem which I have been trying to solve and I heard you know its solution'. He wanted to know the solution to a mathematical problem whilst dying. The visitor replied: ‘Excuse me Sir, but you are dying! Why do you want to know about the solution to this problem?' Al-Biruni replied: ‘I've been looking for you for some time, now that God has given me this opportunity, what would I say to God if I didn't ask you the question?' These were men of religion who had strong faith in God and the hereafter. There was no conflict between religion and science.

Figure 5: Modern imaginary portrait of Al-Zahrawi.

We are told that William Harvey discovered blood circulatory system in the human body. Yet, we discover that it was actually Ibn al-Nafis (Fig. 5) who did so 450 years before Harvey. It is incredible we are not told about these names! They will sooner or later come out. Wouldn't it be a terrible tragedy when our young generation will find out that they have been neglected?

Figure 6: An artistic impression about Ibn al-Nafis. (Source).

Now consider someone like Abu 'l-Qassim al-Zahrawi (from Zahra, near Cordoba, in southern Spain), the true father of surgery, a Spanish Muslim (see Fig. 6). Well, of course, most Spanish of those days spoke Arabic, like the rest of the then Muslim world. They were called Arabs although they were Spanish Muslims, Christians and Jews. They constituted many racial, religious and faith groups, all living under the banner of Islamic civilisation. We owe a great deal today to the inventor and master surgeon Abu 'l-Qassim al-Zahrawi. Some of you might have been born by the aid of a device called the forceps. When the foetus (baby) has a large head and is difficult for the mother to push out of her womb, the forceps are used to pull it out. This was one of his inventions! You might have had an internal surgery which required the use of a suture to stitch the wound. This is a thread made out of the intestine of cats, hence called catgut. The human body does not reject it and it dissolves after a certain time, thus not requiring another surgery to remove the internal stitch. We still use it after a thousand years. Imagine if there were patents at that time, how rich he would be today. His book Al-Tasrif reveals he was a man of high morality and religion. It is amply evident that he believed that his faith expected him to express his religiosity through practical service to the community.

Figure 7: Imaginary portrait of Ibn Sīnā as depicted on a stamp issued by Dubai Emirate.

And then you have someone like Ibn Sina (see Fig. 7), whose encyclopaedic book Al-Qanun fi 'l-tib (The Canon of Medicine) remained as a textbook in medical teaching in Europe for centuries.

Figure 8: Al-Idrisi's map in a Spanish stamp issued in 2004.

My favourite scientist, however, is Al-Idrisi, because he lived in a similar environment to today's Muslims of Europe (see Fig. 8). He lived in Sicily and the South of Italy after the conquest of these lands by the Christians. The Italians, unlike our Spanish friends, did not slaughter the Muslims and the Jews. They decided to live in peace and had truce in them. So Al-Idrissi, a great scholar of geography and various other sciences, became the favorite man in the Palace of King Roger II. When he enters the Palace of King Roger, not only would the King would stand in respect to Al-Idrisi but all his entourage would go out of their way to welcome him. He was asked by King Roger II to write a book embracing his knowledge of the world. The book contained world maps and a history of various nations. He didn't seem to have a problem with living in a land recently conquered by Christians, entering the Palace and becoming a participant member of the community; obviously, there was no problem in having dialogue and cooperation.

There are many other European Muslim scholars like Al-Zahrawi and Al-Idrisi. One whose ideas still resonate in Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) is Ibn Hazm, a Spanish Muslim whose ideas have influenced thousands of Muslims for hundreds of years in the Middle East and various parts of the world. Although he was not a scientist, but a man of religious scholarship, he also wrote about scientific subjects, such as the sphericity of the Earth; hence his relevance to our talk today.

By discovering the substantial contributions of Muslims to European Western Civilisation in those missing thousand years, we'll add value to present day dialogue and culture. I will tell you why in a minute.

6. Various instances of inventions</