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This is a review of the book published in 2007 by Michael Hamilton Morgan, Lost History. The essay attempts to uncover the Golden Age of the Muslim civilisation and recognises its contributions to the rise of the modern world. Through the evocation of the 1000 year long history and the lives of many great scientists, thinkers and artists, the author pleads for the recovery of the lost history of Muslim heritage, with the aim to show that the alternative to the claimed "clash of civilizations" is a secret buried in the past....
A Plea for the Recovery of the Forgotten History of Muslim Heritage
By Ruveyda Ozturk*
Review of Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers and Artists, by Michael Hamilton Morgan. Washington DC: The National Geographic Books, 2007. Hardcover: 320 pages; ISBN-10: 1426200927 – ISBN-13: 978-1426200922; 9.1″ x 5.9 x 1.2″.
Figure 1: Front cover of Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers and Artists by Michael Hamilton Morgan (National Geographic books, 2007).
In recent times, a shift in the paradigm governing the global view of world history has happened in academic circles and especially in the world of scholars working on Islamic intellectual history: a growing number of scholars have challenged the well-known model of the Renaissance as an exclusive and singular moment of genius and invention centred in Italy. According to this familiar standard, the Renaissance signalled both the definitive emergence of European civilization and the irreparable rupture between East and West. Scholars such as Jerry Brotton, Charles Burnett, Anna Contadini, Deborah Howard, Lisa Jardine, Emilie-Savage Smith, George Saliba, Gülru Necipoglu, Rosamond Mack, and Julian Raby, to name a few, have countered this paradigm by viewing the period’s achievements in a broader, global context, pointing to the crucial role of science transmission and trade exchanges in shaping Renaissance identity and by arguing for a more integrated and expansive definition of the Renaissance, a definition that includes and recognizes the contribution of Islamic civilisation.
The book Lost History written by Michael Hamilton Morgan in 2007 is a new and substantial addition to this paradigm shift. It is not surprising that it was selected by New York University’s Center for Dialogue as “Book of the Month” in January 2009 (click here for the book review). Directed at the popular reader, the book aims to fill in an integral part of the world history that seems long lost and forgotten. The book, comprised of eight chapters with an enlightening introduction, highlights the great civilization born with the religion of Islam that achieved many great discoveries and inventions and played a major role in the development of the modern world through the fields of science, philosophy and art. Analysing the Islamic “golden ages” from a number of academic perspectives, the author seeks to acknowledge the many great men from the ‘lost’ past who enabled the world to come to its current stage and to show both Muslims and non-Muslims of today that Islam’s encouragement and support of innovative thinking and cultural advances contributed to the birth of modern science.
Figure 2: Michael H. Morgan at the conference “Muslim Heritage in our World: Social Cohesion” organised by FSTC in London at the UK Houses of Parliament (15 October 2008). (© FSTC 2008).
The core premise of Morgan’s book, which was initially intended for Western readers, is that contrary to its current media stereotype as anti-modern and anti-intellectual, Muslim civilization was for 750 years the single most progressive and modernizing force in the world – as seen in its achievements in higher mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, physics, medicine, creative forms, humanitarian social institutions and leadership models. Morgan also seeks to humanize the many great Muslim-sponsored thinkers and leaders who for most Westerners are only names on a page or footnotes in mainstream Euro-centric history. He warns that the modern consequences of lost history are to rob some people of their historic identities and to artificially aggrandize others, thus providing mistaken justification for conflict and division.
Morgan starts off every chapter of his book with a modern-day story that in itself makes the reader realise the importance of filling in the gaps of history to get a better understanding of individual life today and also the relevance of these great events of the past to our modern world. Beginning with the narrative of the birth of Islam, the life of Prophet Muhammad and the revelation of the Quran, Morgan provides his readers with a story-like version of the rapid and astonishing development of the Arab Empire including the early tolerance-based relationships established with civilisations of other faiths like the Jews and Christians. He details the spread of the Muslims to Central Asia and Spain in Europe and the impact the settlement and rule of the Muslims had on these lands:
“In the long sweep of time and distant overview of larger patterns, the best of Muslim thought, invention and art still managed in its own subtle and circuitous way to seep into the West” (p. 33).
Morgan demonstrates the importance placed on science and invention in Islam through the tales of many Caliphs and rulers of this great enterprise, like Al-Mamun in Baghdad and Abd al-Rahman in Cordoba, who invested heavily in scientific thought and valued intellectual movement against a backdrop of political and military affairs. From the formation of countless institutions like madrassa-s (schools) and the exemplary House of Wisdom in Baghdad to hospitals, beautiful palaces, magnificent mosques and libraries, Morgan details the everlasting effect the Muslim understanding of culture and civilisation will have on Europe for many years to come:
“That early Muslim tradition of improvising and creating, of seeking both knowledge and wisdom will spread to new places, many of them ancient places to which invention and genius are no strangers” (p. 72).
Further on, Morgan relates the complicated events of many groups that encompass Muslim civilisation who, even though they engage in decades of warfare and experience political hardships, rate intellectual superiority and dominion highly. As a result, from Abbasid Baghdad to Ummayad Andalus to Fatimid Cairo, all turn into centres of knowledge, innovation and culture and produce many great men of science, mathematics, astronomy, technology, and the arts. He depicts the interesting life stories and impressive achievements of these men like physicist Ibn al-Haytham, the physician and philosopher Ibn-Sina, mathematicians al-Khwarizmi and ‘Umar al-Khayyam, astronomers al-Biruni, al-Battani, al-Qushji and al-Fazari, who not only developed the methods and practices of the past but also left behind many great discoveries written down and later translated into Latin to be used by the founders of modern science. Morgan also emphasises that these scientists continually praised the sources of knowledge they received from ancient civilisations while he criticises the modern Europeans for such a lack of acknowledgement of the works and accomplishments of the Muslims, and for forgetting their contributions to the modern world.
Figure 4: Harold Anderson, Alhazen Studied the Recreation of Light (1936) (Size: 15″x20″); fine advertising for eyeglasses (Source).
Lost History not only depicts the unique atmosphere created in the Muslim civilisation in order to breed men of science, but also reflects the importance given to science and innovation over all other matters as men from different religions and social standings were appointed to important positions regardless of their faith or background. Further, the role of women in the life of these men, their influence and their contributions to their communities are emphasised through many stories of love and devotion. From this point, Morgan aims to show that religious conflicts can be left in the background and a harmonious world can be achieved with the coexistence of many faiths as was exemplified in Muslim culture through its emphasis on science, innovation and intellectual thought.
The later chapters of the book discuss the vision and thought that resulted in the great Muslim cities like Damascus and Medina Azahra near Cordoba, all built with similar patterns of architecture and infrastructure established all throughout the grand empire. Morgan depicts the importance given to religious symbolism and meaning in architecture and engineering as reflected in many great Islamic buildings like the ‘Dome of the Rock’. Also portrayed in the book are the great love stories of some of these leaders which resulted in the finest architectural works of the time to be built, such as the Taj Mahal. Morgan also talks about the influence of Islamic arts and music on the Europeans, suggesting that some of the modern popular musical form is rooted in Arabic culture. He also details the continuing effect of Arabic poetry on Europe, noting that many worldwide are still highly influenced by the works of Jalal ad-Din al-Rumi, well known and beloved for demonstrating great tolerance of other faiths and cultures as depicted this in his poems. Morgan further states that many medieval European literary naratives were influenced by al-Jahshyari’s Book of the Thousand and One Nights.
Figure 5: The First book of Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine (Source).
The final chapter of the book titled ‘Enlightened Leadership’ provides an overall view of the ideal Muslim leadership from the time of the death of the Prophet to the end of the Ottoman Empire, citing the great men who served their people in the name of Islam and achieved many remarkable things, from grand conquests to the establishment of dazzling cities. Morgan, while telling the stories of these great leaders, makes note of the political and governmental systems of the Muslim states, including their approach to the rights of the general society and the importance placed on public health and education. He mentions extensively the efforts by many great rulers like Harun al-Rashid, Salah al-Din, Razia Sultana, Akbar the Great and Suleiman the Magnificent to create a peaceful, harmonious and wealthy state for their people to inhabit, drawing attention to their respect of other religions and their achievement in ruling fairly over people of various faiths cohabiting the same territory.
In the final epilogue, the author briefly explains the reasons why the Islamic states failed to sustain science leadership into the modern era, but also expresses a belief in the likely reoccurrence of Muslim golden ages in the future. Overall, his book reminds the reader of a significant part of the world history that has been overshadowed by a Eurocentric view of modern science. With a story-like account of the events of the 1000 years of Islamic rule, the book captures the readers’ interest and paints the picture of a long forgotten history, without shying away from also relating the weaknesses and shortcomings of these civilisations and their leaders. The well-referenced book based on extensive research also enables the reader to understand and respect the men and thinkers of the time through Morgan’s imaginary recreations and to feel a sense of debt for their great efforts in their fields. This book is a must-read for everyone interested in world history and an essential work that completes the puzzle of the past by providing the missing link between Greek and Roman civilisations and the European Renaissance.
Extracts from the book
Figure 6: Frontispiece of the Latin translation of the Optics of Ibn al-Haytham Opticae thesavrvs. Alhazeni Arabis libri septem, in the edition of Risner in 1572 (Source).
“Loss is a defining human experience. Nothing in the physical world lasts forever. Memory of what has been lost can be both enabling and painful.
“History teaches us that civilizations flourish, die, and disappear,” Morgan writes in the introduction (p. xiii). “Sometimes they die swiftly, sometimes in a slow lingering death. And sometimes, as with Rome and others, echoes of that civilization find new life in later cultures.”
That last point is Morgan’s main one. While Islam is a religion and civilization, not only a civilization in the same way Rome or Byzantine were, great advances in human civilization did flourish under its influence. At one time, its religious, cultural and linguistic domain stretched from Spain to India and the legacy of the cultural and scientific discoveries came from all points, Morgan writes. The motto and guiding principle behind the book is a philosophic evocation of the fate of civilisations, as it is outlined at the beginning of the introduction to the book:
“To lose the conscious memory of an entire civilization is especially tragic and dangerous, because each civilization, no matter how grand or flawed, is a laboratory of human ideas and ideals, of dreams and nightmares. We can learn from all of them” (p. xiii).
Figure 7: The first reciprocating pump driven by a water wheel and with a double-piston set for raising water to a height of 12 m, designed and manufactured by al-Jazarî in 1206 in Southern Turkey. Source: Topkapi Palace Museum Library in Istanbul, MS Ahmet III 3472.
Having uncovered the fascinating Muslim history articulated “about invention, creativity, big ideas, tolerance, and coexistence”, the author asserts that “it is a Muslim history that had been more intellectually accomplished than Christian Europe of the day, and a Muslim past where Christians, Jews, and Buddhists had flourished and worked together. It is a culture that had seeded the European Renaissance and enabled many aspects of the modern West and global civilization. It is a history that by the beginning of the 21st century had been forgotten, ignored, misunderstood, suppressed, or even rewritten (pp. xiii-xiv).
Aiming to bridge the large gulf of misunderstanding between Muslims and non-Muslims that needed to be filled, he conceived of the book, considering that if a deeper appreciation of Muslim history could be recovered, then maybe the very premises of the emerging ‘clash of civilizations’ could be re-framed:
“The result is this book. I know there may be those on the non-Muslim side of the divide who will say that I’m distorting history, by choosing to emphasize the bright side of a very complex civilization. I will respond that I am simply balancing the incomplete and negative slant of most of what we non-Muslims have been given.
“To apply the argument of these critics fully and fairly, we would need to include in the history of Western Christian civilization not only the thoughts of Voltaire and St. Thomas Aquinas, we would also need to include the thoughts and deeds of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.
“There may also be those Muslims who will say that I have sought to rehabilitate and glorify heretics and impure Muslims, who deserve to be suppressed and forgotten.
Figure 8: 3D image extracted from the reproduction of the reciprocating pump by scholars of FSTC. See the video animation (© FSTC).
“By no coincidence, all of the great thinkers, inventors and artists of Muslim civilization were creative minds. Much like today’s scientific researchers, they were trained in their various disciplines to constantly question assumptions, in a search for higher truth. Their number included some who followed other religions. While they were all versed in the tenets and philosophy of their faiths, few were rigid, doctrinaire thinkers. And they operated in a very different political context than we see today. The Muslim quest for knowledge often drove even the most devout rulers and religious scholars to support freethinking and empirical scientific inquiry. But fascination with the intellect came under increasing attack, beginning in the ninth century. One dispute was between Muslim “rationalists” who believed in finding divine truth through reason and “literalists” who stuck to the narrowly interpreted, literal statements and acts of the Prophet. It was not unlike the current and longstanding American debate between supporters of Darwinism and advocates of creationism or intelligent design.
“By writing “Lost History”, I hope to show not only the contributions of an old and rich civilization. I hope to show, as Caliph Al Mamun concluded, that reason and faith can coexist: that by fully opening the mind and unleashing human creativity, many wonders, including peace, are possible (pp. xiv-xv).
Award-winning Michael Hamilton Morgan is both a novelist and nonfiction author. He wrote The Twilight War, and co-authored two books with the undersea explorer Robert Ballard, Graveyards of the Pacific and Collision with History: The Search for John F. Kennedy’s PT-109. The latter is a book and TV documentary released by National Geographic and MSNBC in 2002. A former diplomat from 1980 to 1987, he created and now heads the New Foundations for Peace (www.nfpeace.org), which promotes cross-cultural understanding and leadership among youth. He has appeared on ABC and CBS and as a Washington journalist covered foreign policy issues. From 1990-2000 he directed and advised the International Pegasus Prize for Literature.
Endorsements (from the website of the book: Lost History)
Table of contents
|Chapter 1: Rome’s children||1|
|Chapter 2: Lost cities of genius||43|
|Chapter 3: God in the numeral||81|
|Chapter 4: Stars patterns||117|
|Chapter 5: Inventors and scientists||151|
|Chapter 6: Healers and hospitals||179|
|Chapter 7: Vision, voice, citadel||219|
|Chapter 8: Enlightened leadership||251|
Resources and further reading
* Reviewer, FSTC, Sydney, Australia.