Rebuttal by the FSTC to Edward Rothstein’s Article

by Peter Raymond, Peter Fell, Ian Fenn Published on: 17th January 2011

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Rebuttal by the Foundation for Science Technology and Civilisation to "A Golden Age in Science, Full of Light and Shadow" by Edward Rothstein published in The New York Times, December 10, 2010


Rebuttal by the Foundation for Science Technology and Civilisation (FSTC) to
“A Golden Age in Science, Full of Light and Shadow” by Edward Rothstein
published in The New York Times, December 10, 2010

The 1001 Inventions exhibition, which highlights the scientific legacy of Muslim civilization in our modern age, made its United States debut at the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) on December 4th 2010. In its newest version, the exhibition has enjoyed blockbuster runs in both London and Istanbul, attracting more than 800,000 visitors so far this year.

On December 10th 2010, Edward Rothstein in the New York Times reviewed the exhibition under the title A Golden Age in Science, Full of Light and Shadow. Mr. Rothstein’s article was a muddled, badly researched and highly subjective piece, which intermingles polemics, selectivity of facts and a reductionist view.

The article is wrapped in a conceptual framework which is hostile and denigrating. Mr Rothstein has the right to dislike 1001 Inventions, and we accept he has every right to express that opinion publicly. However, we, as creators of the exhibition, cannot remain silent to his attack against our credibility as historians of science and ideas.

1001 Inventions is now at its “adult” phase, and the version of the exhibition currently resident at New York’s Hall of Science has benefited from the criticisms, contributions and amendments of respected academics and experts accumulated since it was first conceived and presented to the public in 2006. In particular, last year we went through a rigorous critical review by the scholars of the prestigious Science Museum in London. Every word written on the panels, every fact, every image and every exhibit was passed through the prism of critical peer-review and verification. The result was the exhibition that opened to the public in 2010 in the cities of London, Istanbul and now New York.

Now, despite all the academic rigour we have applied, we are accused of being approximate and even wrong in presenting historical facts by Mr. Rothstein, who erroneously imagines himself an expert. In this open letter, we address in all of the claims of inaccuracy Mr. Rothstein levels at our exhibition with reference to credible historical sources.

1. Ibn al-Nafis and the circulation of blood

Mr Rothstein wrote: “Historians, the label continues, have recently found evidence that Ibn al-Nafis’s Arabic text “may have been translated into Latin, paving the way to suppose that it might have indirectly influenced” Harvey’s work. The “may have,” the “suppose,” the “might have” and the “indirectly” reflect an overwhelming impulse to affirm what cannot be proved”.

The critic here addresses the conditional tense in the expression of Ibn al-Nafis’ possible influence on Harvey. The conditional style is not the result of our covert intention to hide facts behind elliptic expressions. Actually, this is simply the result of the historical investigation on this issue.

An eminent historian of science from Columbia University, New York, Professor George Saliba, summarized this debate as follows:

“…consider again, in fields other than astronomy, the appearance of the description of the pulmonary movement of the blood first in an Arabic text of the Damascene physician Ibn al-Nafis (d. 1288) … who lived around the same period as the astronomers who produced the two mathematical theorems mentioned above and whose medical text was written before 1241, and the later appearance of the same description of the pulmonary circulation of the blood in the works of Michael Servetus (1511-1553) and Realdo Colombo (1510-1559)… In the same context, recall too that Harvey, to whom the discovery of the circulation of the blood is attributed, graduated from the university of Padua in northern Italy whose medical faculty had included among its members, about a century earlier, the distinguished Venetian physician by the name of Andreas Alpagos (d. 1520). This Andreas had spent close to 30 years in Damascus as the physician of the Venetian consulate towards the latter part of the fifteenth and early part of the sixteenth centuries. While in Damascus he learnt Arabic enough to re-translate the philosophical and medical works of Avicenna as well as the same medical work of Ibn al-Nafis where the pulmonary motion of the blood is mentioned. The copy of Andreas’s translation which still exists at Bologna University, however, does not seem to include the section on the pulmonary circulation of the blood” (emphasis is ours).[1]

Was this section of Ibn al-Nafis’ book translated in full and is no more extant? Did Andreas Alpagos use it in its original Arabic version and communicate its content to his contemporaries? The intricacies of the transmission of knowledge appeal to more humility and do not always allow clear affirmations. In addition, the knowledge of Arabic learning in pre-modern Europe, in Italy and elsewhere, is far more complex and multi-faceted than we now suppose. What is certain is that when visitors of the exhibition notice an indirect formulation, they must normally give us the benefit of doubt and suppose first that this is not the effect of a misleading assertion from our end, but a shortcoming in historical knowledge, which can be overcome only by future investigation.

Therefore, we maintain that Ibn al-Nafis’ work may have indirectly influenced William Harvey’s discovery through Vesalius, Colombo and Serevetus, who were in contact with Alpago.[2]

A quotation from the original Arabic text of Ibn al-Nafis in a recent edition. (Source)
© George Saliba.

2. Ibn Sina’s pioneering ideas in geology

Mr Rothstein wrote: “Sometimes Muslim precedence is suggested with even vaguer assertions. We read that Ibn Sina, in the 11th century, speculated about geological formations, “ideas that were developed, perhaps independently, by geologist James Hutton in the 18th century.” Why “perhaps independently”? Is there any evidence of influence? Are the analyses comparable? How? Nothing is clear other than a vague sense of wrongful neglect.”

We think our formulation was honest, as we were careful in attesting a possible influence of Ibn Sina’s ideas on James Hutton, but not too affirmative. By seeking definitive affirmations, Mr Rothstein demonstrates he is not familiar with the rigorous work of historians. If this is not enough, here is more.

One of the fields in which Ibn Sina exerted his ingenious mind was the observation of geological processes and their transformation in long periods of time. In his famous encyclopaedia Kitab Al-Shifa, a section is dedicated to mineralogy and meteorology. There, he presented fundamental principles of geology in terms of Earth processes, major events and long geologic time. Kitab Al-Shifa, having been translated into Latin, was an inspiring source of thought to the founders of geology in Europe such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Steno, and James Hutton. In the 18th century the latter set forth his famous Theory of the Earth, in which most probably he was inspired by Ibn Sina’s ideas.

The references supporting the above claims are abundant. We base our relevant claims here especially on the works of Dr Munim Al-Rawi (Dublin, Ireland), a specialist who has published extensively on the subject, including articles that were peer reviewed and published in respected journals and books of history of science. The results of Dr Al-Rawi’s research were summarized in an article published in Contribution of Ibn Sina to the development of Earth Sciences (full article in PDF here). For more references, see the bibliography given in the footnote.[3]

3. ‘Abbas ibn Firnas and flying

Mr Rothstein wrote: “Some assertions go well beyond the evidence. Hovering above the show is a glider grasped by a ninth-century inventor from Cordoba, Abbas ibn Firnas, “the first person to have actually tried” to fly. But that notion is based on a source that relied on ibn Firnas’s mention in a ninth-century poem. It also ignores the historian Joseph Needham’s description of Chinese attempts as early as the first century. The model of the flying machine is pure speculation.”

If we seemed to neglect previous instances of early attempts of flight in the Chinese heritage, this is certainly due to an oversight. Our intent is not to deny the contribution of earlier civilisations. In our publications and in the exhibition, we repeatedly advocate a strict continuity of history. However, we must stress that the seeds which planted the process of innovation in the European Renaissance did not come directly from the Far East but from the lands nearer to Western Europe and with whom direct connection was established for centuries, hence “Muslim Heritage”.

To come back to Ibn Firnas, Mr Rothstein’s claim is just not true. ‘Abbas Ibn Firnas’ precedence in flying is documented in more than a poem. We have a relatively detailed narrative in Al-Muqtabis min anba’ ahl al-Andalus by Abū Marwān Hayyān ibn Khalaf Ibn Ḥayyān al-Qurtubi (987–1075). The book was lost for a long time and was found only a few decades ago.[4] However, even before it was found, the account of Ibn Hayyan was quoted by other ancient Arabic historians, such as the Andalusian historian Ibn Sa’id al-Maghribi (d. 1286 CE) and the 17th-century Moroccan historian Al-Maqarri.

The narrative of Ibn Firnas’ flight was summarized by E. Lévi-Provençal in The Encyclopaedia of Islam as follows: “He was even a distant precursor of aviation, thinking out a sheath furnished with feathers and mobile wings; had the courage to put it on, to jump from the top of a precipice and to hover in the air for a few seconds before falling—escaping death by a miracle.”[5]

In the testimony of the Andalusi historian Ibn Sa’id al-Maghribi (d. 1286 CE) in Al-Mughrib fi hulay al-Maghrib ( المغرب في حلى المغرب ), we read that Ibn Firnas’ flight lasted more than a few seconds, as he reports, based on Ibn Hayyan’s Al-Muqtabis, that he was airborne for “a long distance” (masāfa ba’īda):[6]

واحتال في تطييرجثمانه، فكسا نفسه الريش على سرق الحرير، فتهيأ له أن استطار في الجو منناحية الرصافة، واستقل في الهواء، فحلق فيه حتى وقع على مسافة بعيدة.

The same is in Al-Maqarri’s Nafh al-tib:[7]:

المغرب في حلى المغرب لابن سعيد الغرناطي الأندلسي، بيروت: دار الكتب العلمية للنشر، 1997ـ تحقيق خليل عمران المنصور.

واحتال في تطيير جثمانه وكسا نفسه الريش ومد له جناحين وطار في الجو مسافة بعيدة ولكنه لم يحسن الاحتيال في وقوعه فتأذى في مؤخره ولم يدر أن الطائر إنما يقع على زمكه ولم يعمل له ذنبا.[8]

Both Arabic references describe a flight for a long distance, not a few seconds.

4. Al-Zahrawi and the use of catgut

Mr Rothstein wrote: “And some claims are simply incorrect: catgut was used in surgical sutures by Galen in the second century, long before al-Zahrawi (named here as its pioneer).”

When it comes to precision he is not accurate. He refers to the partial online edition of Roenigk & Roenigk’s Dermatologic Surgery by Randall K. Roenigk.[9] We would have preferred a reference to a work of an historian of science. We may refer to an influential book edited by Jeffrey A. Norton, Philip S. Barie, Randall Bollinger and others Surgery: basic science and clinical evidence, in which they quote: “In 952, a Moorish physician named Albucasis performed the first successful thyroidectomy. Albucasis was truly ahead of his time, as he also introduced many other surgical interventions including the use of catgut and cotton suture”.[10]

The history literature does argue, however, whether Al-Razi (another Muslim scholar at the other end of the Muslim world, from the early 10th century) had preceded Al-Zahrawi in using catgut for stitching internal wounds, not Galen. According to Elizabeth Selden, Galen used ligatures, not catguts.[11]

On this topic, we leave it to Mr Rothstein to present more evidence to challenge our claim.

4. The multi-cultural scope

Mr Rothstein said: “The exhibition also dutifully praises the multicultural aspect of this Golden Age while actually undercutting it. Major cultures of the first millennium (China, India, Byzantium) are mentioned only to affirm the weightier significance of Muslim contributions. And though we read that people “of many faiths worked together” in the Golden Age, we don’t learn much about them.

We assume that Mr Rothstein is unaware of another of our exhibitions, entitled Multi-faith Scientists in Muslim Civilisation. That was totally devoted to highlight the diversity of faiths and cultures under the umbrella of the scientific and medical traditions of the Islamic world, including dozens of Christian, Jewish, Sabean, Zoroastrian, and Hindu scholars. This exhibition was shown at the United Nations delegates entrance in New York in November 2008.[12]

Furthermore, it is a pity that he did not appear to have seen in the current exhibition at NYSCI the exhibits pertaining to Maimonides (Jewish), Qusta bin Luqa (Christian), Thabit ibn Qurra (Sabean). The argument about the lack of multi-culturalism in 1001 Inventions and more largely in our global work is convoluted when we are being criticized for featuring a Chinese admiral whose name is an icon in Chinese history.

5. The historical duration of the scientific tradition

Mr Rothstein said: “It [the exhibition] also expands the Golden Age of Islam to a millennium, though the bright years were once associated with just portions of the Abbasid Caliphate, which itself lasted for about 500 years, from the eighth century to 1258″.

Here we disagree. Historical evidence shows that the scientific tradition began in the Umayyad era, an example is Khalid ibn Yazid’s work in chemistry (d. 704 CE), and continued through to the Ottomans. A brilliant example of original science in this late era is represented by the work of Taqi al-Din (d. 1585) in astronomy and engineering. His astronomical instruments were compared by the historians of science to those of Tycho Brahe.[13]. In engineering and technology, he designed new machines, some of which represented the culminant point of technology, such as the six cylinder pump and gravity and spring loaded clocks.[14]

6. The challenge of continuity

Mr Rothstein repeatedly challenges the notion that Muslim scientists made discoveries later attributed to Westerners and that many Western institutions were shaped by Muslim contributions.

Our intention is to show continuity. The exhibition highlights the cultural roots of modern science. In doing so, it is inescapable that when one shows the role of pre-modern science in modern science, one might be perceived to minimise modern science. The latter has its own singularity, but we must be aware it did not come from nothing. Our aim is not the “promotion” of Muslim contribution but to show that a reductionist view of science as occidental, from Greece to modern Western Europe, is not true and dangerous.

7. Final remarks

Mr. Rothstein attempts to tarnish the scholarship behind the 1001 Inventions exhibition, which is genuinely trying to inspire young people to appreciate science and its continuity through history transcending race, religion, or culture. Global scientific transfer through history is a must for a better world and the fact that the Muslim Civilization’s role in the history of science, medicine and technology is missing from our history is indefensible. However, we maintain our position that our organisation, is a non-religious and non-political foundation and thus we do not wish to be drawn to a religious or political debate which Mr Rothstein apparently is trying to instigate.

By picking a few weak examples and leaving out abundant other positive ones, Mr Rothstein may have unintentionally crossed the borders of objectivity. We leave it to the visitors to the exhibition and the readers of his article to differentiate between our sincere and open attitude and his stance.

Yours faithfully,

On behalf of FSTC Board of Trustees:

  1. Peter Raymond, MBE
  2. Peter Fell
  3. Ian Fenn

8. Notes

[1.] See George Saliba, Whose Science is Arabic Science in Renaissance Europe?, especially Section 3: Role of Arabic Scientific Manuscripts in European Libraries. On the work of Ibn al-Nafis and its possible transmission to Europe during the same period. A.Z. Iskandar, “Ibn al-Nafis”, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Scribner’s Sons, NY, 1974, vol. 9, pp. 602-606. See also Ibn al-Nafis’ theory about the circulation of blood presented in animated form on the website of the Science Museum in London: Circulation of the blood. Note the striking continuity between Ibn al-Nafis and Harvey in the following screenshot from this animation:

[2.] For more details, see C. D. O’Malley, “A Latin translation of Ibn Nafis (1547) related to the problem of the circulation of the blood”, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 12 (2), 1957, pp. 248-249; and John B. West, “Ibn al-Nafis, the pulmonary circulation, and the Islamic Golden Age”, Journal of Applied Physiology, 105(6), December 2008, pp. 1877-80 (online here).

[3.] Selected references in the historical literature on Ibn Sina’s contribution to the long history of geology:

  • Adams, F. D., 1938. The birth and development of geological sciences. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins Co. Reprinted in paperback New York: Dover, 1954.
  • Al-Rawi, M. M., 1977. “A concise account on the history of Arabic Earth Sciences”. In: Proceedings of the First Symposium for the History of Arabic Science, University of Aleppo, vol. 1, pp. 187-209.
  • Al-Rawi, M. M, 1979. “A comparative study between Al-Ma’adin wa-‘l-athar aI-‘ulwiyah of Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and the principles of modern geology”. Presented to the Second International Symposium for the History of Arabic Science, April 1979, University of Aleppo, 27 pp. (in Arabic with abstract in English).
  • Al-Rawi, M. M., 1983. “The contribution of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) to the development of earth sciences in Europe”. Paper presented to the conference on The Impact of Arab and Islamic Civilisation, St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, December 17-18, 1983.
  • Al-Rawi, M. M., 1984. “Principles of Geology in Al-Ma’adin wa-‘l-athar aI-‘ulwiyah of Ibn Sina”. Journal of the Institute of Arabian Manuscripts (Kuwait), vol. 28, part 2, pp. 547-564 (In Arabic).
  • Al-Rawi, M. M., 2001. “Islamic Geology and Mineralogy”. In: A. Y. al-Hassan et al. (editors), Science and Technology in Islam. Paris/Beirut: UNESCO Publishing, vol. 4, pt. 2, pp. 405-424.
  • Al-Sukari, A. A., 1973. The Arabs and Geology. Alexandria: Dar al-Ma’aref (in Arabic with summary in English).
  • Al-Ward, A. A. and Al-Fadhili, I. J. 1977. “The Arab origin of earth science (Geology).” In: Proceedings of the First International Symposium for the History of Arabic Science. Aleppo: University of Aleppo, vol. 1, pp. 347-387 (in Arabic).
  • Qassim, M., (Editor), 1969. Al-Shifa of Ibn Sina, Natural Sciences, Part 2: Earth and Heavens, Part 3: Formation and Decomposition, Part 4: Actions and Reactions. Cairo: Arab Book Publishing House (in Arabic).

[4.] The Muqtabis was published many times: see the edition by Būlus Kitnar (Paris, 1937; Series “Textes arabes relatifs a l’histoire de l’Occident musulman”, N° 3) and the edition by Abd al-Rahman al-Hajji, Beirut, 1965.

[5.] by E. Lévi-Provençal, “‘Abbās b. Firnās b. Wardūs, Abu ‘l-Kāsim”, in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd edition, Leiden (print version: volume I, p. 10).

[6.] المغرب في حلى المغرب لابن سعيد الغرناطي الأندلسي، بيروت: دار الكتب العلمية للنشر، 1997ـ تحقيق خليل عمران المنصور.

[7.] المصدر: نفح الطيب من غصن الأندلس الرطيب، أحمد بن محمد المقري التلمساني. بيروت: دار صادر، 1968، تحقيق إحسان عباس، جزء 3، ص. 374.

[8.] Both sources rely on Al-Muqtabis by Ibn Hayyan Al-Qurtubi (edited by Abd al-Rahman al-Hajji, Beirut: 1965), vol. 2, pp. 227, 238.

[9.] Informa Healthcare, 1996, 2nd edition.

[10.] Jeffrey A. Norton,Philip S. Barie, Randall Bollinger et al. editors, Surgery: Basic Science and Clinical Evidence, Springer, 2008, 2nd edition, p. 1181.

[11.] “Sutures and Ligatures”, The American Journal of Nursing, Vol. 17, No. 6 (Mar., 1917), pp. 491-495 (first page online at

[12.] See FSTC’s Contribution to the Intercultural Dialogue at the General Assembly of the United Nations (published on 13 December, 2008).

[13.] See Sevim Tekeli, The Instruments of Istanbul Observatory (published on 8 June, 2008).

[14.] For more information on Taqi al-Din ibn Ma’ruf and his work, see our special section published on Taqi Al-Din: Astronomy, Mathematics, Optics and Technology.

9. Academic Contributors

Further academic references:

Further manuscript references:

Head of Content : Professor Mohammed Abbatouy
– Head of Manuscripts Research: Dr. Salim Ayduz
– Exhibition Content Editor: Rebecca Mileham
– Translation Manager : Sali Shahsivari
– Book Content Co-Editor: Elizabeth Woodcock
– Book Content Co-Editor : Dr. Rabah Saoud

Content Contributors and Consultants (In alphabetical order):

– Professor Mohammed Abattouy, University of Mohammed V, Rabat, Morocco (History of Science)
– Dr. Silke Ackerman, The British Museum, London, UK (Astronomy and Devices)
– Dr. Subhi Al-Azzawi, Architect, Kent, UK (Architecture and environment)
– HRH Princess Wijdan Al-Hashemi, Amman, Jordan (Art and Islamic coins)
– Abdel Aziz Al-Jaraki, Architect, Damascus, Syria (Water Clocks)
– Professor Jim Al-Khalili, Surrey University (Science)
– Dr. Munim Al-Rawi, Dublin, Ireland (Geology)
– Dr. Salim Ayduz, FSTC, UK (Ottoman Science)
– Dr. Anne-Maria Brennan, London South Bank University, UK (Ecology)
– Lee Bryant, Headshift, London, UK (Social Media)
– Professor Charles Burnett, The Warburg Institute, London, UK (History of Science)
– Professor Sami Chalhoub, Institute for the History of Arabic Science, Aleppo, Syria (History of Maths)
– Maurice I Coles, Curriculum Enrichment, Birmingham, UK (Education Systems)
– Mariane Cutler, ASE, UK (Education)
– Professor Nabila Dawood, University of Baghdad, Iraq (History of Science)
– Dr. Okasha El Daly, FSTC, UK (Egyptology)
– Dr. Mahbub Gani, Kings College, London, UK (Mathematics and numbers)
– Professor S M Ghazanfar, Idaho University, US (Economics, Muslim Spain)
– Bettany Hughes, London, UK (History, Media)
– Philippa Hulme, London, UK (Education)
– Dr. Zohor Idrisi, FSTC, UK (Agriculture and Codes)
– Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, OIC, Jeddah, KSA and IRCICA, Istanbul, Turkey (History of Science)
– Dr. Abdul Nasser Kaadan, Institute for the History of Arabic Science, Aleppo, Syria (Medicine)
– Paul Keeler, Golden Web, Cambridge, UK (Routes of Science)
– Mohammed Kujja, The Archaeological Society, Syria (Andalusia &Syria)
– Professor Mustafa Mawaldi, Institute for the History of Arabic Science, Aleppo, Syria (History of Science, History of Maths)
– Professor Sabah Mushatat, Wolverhampton University, UK (Islamic Architecture)
– Professor Roshdi Rashed, CNRS, Paris, France (History of Science)
– Dr. Geoffrey Roper, Cambridge University Library, UK (Codicology, Bibliography and Print History)
– Adil Salahi, London, UK (Translation)
– Professor George Saliba, Columbia University, US (History of Astronomy)
– Dr. Rabah Saoud, MHC, Dubai, UAE (Architecture, Town Planning)
– Professor Nil Sari, Istanbul University, Turkey (Ottoman Medicine)
– Professor Emilie Savage-Smith, University of Oxford, UK (Medicine and Astronomy)
– Professor Sevim Tekeli, Ankara, Turkey (Engineering and Mapping)
– Dr. Ibrahim Shaikh, FSTC, UK (Surgery)
– Sali Shahsivari, Prognosa, Macedonia (Balkans Heritage)
– Dr. Rim Turkmani, Imperial College, London, UK (Astronomy)
– Professor Mick Waters, Curriculum Enrichment, UK (Educational Systems)

Related Links

– New York Exhibition :

More Information

– About 1001 Inventions :

– Istanbul Exhibition :

– London Exhibition :

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