Muslim Heritage: A Scholarly Perspective

by Kaleem Hussain Published on: 24th September 2008

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FSTC Research Associate Kaleem Hussain delivered on 17th April 2008 a lecture on ‘Muslim Heritage: A Scholarly Perspective' at the Markfield Institute of Higher Education in Leicester. Aiming to explore the education of children in that area, focusing particularly on Muslim children, the conference presented the projects of FSTC and some milestones in contemporary scholarship in Muslim Heritage. We reproduce in this article a brief summary of the themes touched on during the lecture.


Kaleem Hussain*

FSTC Research Associate Kaleem Hussain delivered on 17th April 2008 a lecture on “Muslim Heritage: A Scholarly Perspective” at the Markfield Institute of Higher Education (MIHE) in Leicester. The lecture was presented during the monthly lunch hour sessions at MIHE, where many community representatives and residents are in attendance along with students from the Markfield Institute. The presentation focused on the range of projects that FSTC is involved in along with the “Muslim Heritage Interview Series” project that Kaleem Hussain has been working on representing the milestones in Muslim scholarship and innovation from a classical and contemporary perspective. We reproduce in this article a brief summary of the themes touched on during the lecture.

Figure 1: Kaleem Hussain during the lecture.

1001 Inventions Initiative

I began my lecture presentation by explaining to the audience how the history of science and civilisation is taught by many educational systems today. We learn about the Greeks, the Romans, the Renaissance, Industrial Revolution and Modern Day Civilisation and we are in the main led to believe that the periods from around the 5th to the 16th centuries were periods of intellectual darkness with very little advancement. This period a whole is commonly termed as the “Dark Ages.” Such a perceived understanding of the history of science and civilisation is far from the reality of what was actually taking place in history. In the 5th century CE, we were witnessing the development of Roman, Chinese and Indian Civilisations and during the period of what is termed the “Dark Ages”, the Muslim world had witnessed one of the greatest intellectual revolutions in history, where advancements were made in so many different fields from around 650 CE until the 17th century at least. I explained that one of the main aims of the lecture presentation was to dispel the myth of what is termed the “Dark Ages” and to touch on some of the wonderful contributions Muslim have made to our heritage from a classical and contemporary perspective.

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Figure 2: Front cover of 1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World (Manchester: FSTC, 2006).

The lecture presentation then moved on to focus on the aims of the 1001 Inventions Exhibition along with the range of projects that the FSTC is involved in. The 1001 Inventions initiative is a ground breaking global educational initiative exploring the Muslim contributions to building the foundations of Modern Civilisation. It is a unique UK based educational project that reveals the rich heritage that the Muslim community share with other communities in the UK, Europe and across the world. Being a non-religious and non-political project seeking to allow positive aspects of progress in science and technology to act as a bridge in understanding the interdependence of communities throughout human history, the lecturer explained in more detail the various projects included in the initiative. In particular, 1001 Inventions consists of a UK and world wide travelling exhibition, a colourful easy to read book, a dedicated website ( and a themed collection of educational posters complementing a secondary school teachers’ pack and curriculum enrichment programme. Such an endeavour is important to fill the gap created by the lack of appreciation of this rich period of history in our National Curriculum in the UK and that the Teacher’s Pack has been devised to raise awareness about this rich aspect of our historical Civilisation by providing support for teachers and the classroom environment. Another area of our activity is dedicated to the International Book for Schools Project, aimed at getting sponsorship and donations to distribute 1,000,000 + copies of the 1001 inventions book to various institutions internationally including schools, universities and libraries. The exhibition itself includes over 40 interactive, sensory and static exhibits where one is able to explore seven different zones to discover these: home, school, market, hospital, town, world and universe.

Muslim Heritage Interview Series

The core of the lecture presentation was devoted to the ‘Muslim Heritage Interview Series’ on which the author has been recently working on at FSTC. The project was developed in tandem with the 1001 Inventions Exhibition which took place in Birmingham, England in 2006. I had the privilege of being able to interview a wide range of distinguished authorities on various themes related to Muslim Heritage for a local radio station whilst the 1001 Inventions Exhibition was taking place in Birmingham. The interviews aimed to give full justice and credence to the topics covered by the specialists on the radio show. A written transcription should be produced in order for those that were unable to listen to the interviews on the radio show can benefit from the words of wisdom the specialists put forward on topics such as Art, Science, Astronomy, Agriculture, Education, Tourism and Islamic Spirituality. One of the primary aims of the interviews and the project at large was to show the wonderful contributions Muslims have made to our heritage and Civilisation historically, but also to demonstrate how such contributions are still taking place today in a range of fields by interviewing the specialists who are very much active and participating in those very fields.

The lecture presentation then moved on to touch briefly on some of the specialists whom were interviewed and to present their comments and observations on the various themes.

Interview of Professor Salim Al-Hassani

The first person I had the honour of interviewing was Professor Salim Al-Hassani who is the honorary Chairman of FSTC. I explained to the audience the many topics that were discussed during this interview. Professor Salim Al-Hassani explained that the term ‘1001’ does not mean that there are only 1001 inventions which Muslim scholars developed, but that the term aimed to counter perceptions of Muslims which emanate from the famous the tales of ‘1001 Arabian Nights’. He explained that the Muslim Heritage project is about the Muslim heritage in our world, that is a concerted effort to bring the inventions and discoveries of classical Islamic civilisation and connect to present day life. During the interview, Professor Al-Hassani talked about the range of fields in which Muslims have played a leading role in terms of inventions in homes such as spectacles, carpets, pens, coffee, shampoo, garden and flowers; in school topics such us Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Geography, Algebra, Art and Biology. He also explained how he embarked upon the project and events leading to the setting up of the website ( It was Professor Donald Cardwell, a distinguished authority in the history of science and industry who mentioned to Professor Al-Hassani that from his experience and knowledge in the field, there is a thousand years missing in history frequently wrongly termed as the “Dark Ages. In reality, this was a period when Muslim Civilisation shined in Science, technology and culture. He asked Professor Al-Hassani to consider this a noble cause, especially that he was a distinguished professor of mechanical engineering and an Arab Muslim. This was a catalyst which inspired Professor Al-Hassani to embark on this wonderful journey of unravelling the rich Muslim innovations that have contributed to our heritage throughout the ages. It was also highlighted that the touring exhibition 1001 Inventions is about the real history of Europe and not just of Middle and Far East. It is about an amnesia of 1000 years in the European mind.

Figure 3: The book ‘1001 Inventions’: Sample pages.

Professor Salim Al-Hassani went into detail during the interview on the range of fields in which Muslim scholars had contributed. He mentioned that when we think of history in the main, it is generally about wars, kings, caliphs and political turmoil. This is a kind of history which certainly many of us would not wish to be affiliated with. The 1001 Inventions project sets out to dispel this understanding of history and portray the beautiful aspects of our history and heritage which has built a common understanding and bonding between different cultures and traditions throughout the world. Of special interest is the positive role of Muslim women in building that civilisation as well as how non-Muslims so happily and harmoniously worked with Muslims during that period.

Professor Salim Al-Hassani finished the interview by stating that social cohesion in the UK requires recognition of the highest authority that “Islam is a part of British life and Muslims are an integral part of British society”. This recognition must be implemented in all aspects of life, especially in the schools curriculum so that the future generation learn to live in peace and harmony.

Peter Sanders

The next person I interviewed and touched on during the presentation was Peter Sanders who is a well known photographer who has travelled extensively across the Muslim world. Peter Sander represents an example of the beautiful heritage of Islam being presented through the medium of photography which is being portrayed actively today in Britain and the world. It was mentioned to the audience the spiritual journey that Peter Sanders took which led to him to embracing Islam. I talked about the extensive travels that Peter Sanders has undertaken throughout the Muslim world to capture the many amazing photographs some of which can be viewed on his website With over 30 years of experience behind him, Peter Sanders realised that there was a lack of high quality photographs of the Islamic world appearing in the media and this inspired him to set up the Peter Sanders Photographic Library in 1986. During the interview, Peter Sanders also spoke about a recent project that he has been focusing on titled “The Art of Integration” presenting a “British Islamic identity.” Peter Sanders felt that there were many different presentations of Islam based on the subcontinental portrayals from where the host of Muslim immigrants who had come to the UK and had settled here are from, but there was no such thing as a British Islamic portrayal demonstrating how Muslims who are British born play a pivotal part in British society whilst practising the tenets of their faith at the same time. The project is a visually poetic reminder that Muslims have been a part of British life for well over a century and have made and continue to make an important contribution to the United Kingdom’s rich cultural heritage. Peter Sanders also gave some advice on how to master the art of photography and the advancements that have been made in this field through the advent of digital cameras. The interview with Peter Sanders demonstrated how the beauty of Islam can be presented in a pictorial format and how at times a picture can forward a message which words cannot do. There was a lot of interest from the audience to learn more about Peter Sander’s photography during this segment of the presentation.

Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr

I then had the privilege to talk about the interview I conducted with Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr who is one of the world’s leading experts on Islamic science and spirituality. Professor Nasr has written over twenty-five books and five hundred articles in Persian, English, Arabic and French. During the interview, Professor Nasr touched on the Islamic understanding of spirituality as opposed to how the term is understood in western language. Professor Nasr touched on the inner spiritual transmission in Islam which has emanated from Prophet Muhammad, to Ali, Abu Bakr, Salman al-Farsi and the great Sufi sages such as Ghazzali, Shibli, Baghdadi, and Qushairi. A brief synopsis was given to the audience of the major spiritual paths that are found in Islam which Professor Nasr touched on such as the Naqshbandiya, Mevlaviya, Qadiriya, and Alawiya. These different paths have their own unique attributes, but the essential goal is the same for all. The great Sufi master Rumi and his work was briefly touched on and the impact that his poetry has had in the western world. Professor Nasr placed a strong emphasis in stating that the focus of these spiritual orders was on purifying one’s inner self and external in light of the prophetic teachings based on the Quran and the Sunnah. Professor Nasr touched on the role of women in Islamic spirituality. The name Rabia Al-Adawiyya who was a famous woman personality in the field of Islamic spirituality was mentioned, together with a survey on the impact of her poems, treatises and couplets. It was then explained to the audience about the concept of inter-faith dialogue and how Professor Nasr mentioned during his interview that Sufi sages like Rumi in central Anatolia, Muhyi al-Din Ibn Arabi in Spain, Moinuddin Chisti in India, were leading lights in spreading the pristine message of Islam in their regions and attracted audiences from many different religions, cultures and backgrounds. Professor Nasr mentioned about the dangers of secularism in the modern world and how this ideal is in opposition to the true tenets of Islamic spirituality. Emphasis was placed on having a balanced constitution and mind so that we can have a productive impact in our societies. The role of music in Islam was briefly touched and the soothing and spiritually elevating affect that it can have. I explained to the audience that Professor Nasr concluded the interview by stating that we should be proud of our heritage and should present it in a manner that it is alive and not something that is pre-historic and divorced from our common day reality.

Figure 4: Educational Posters of the ‘1001 Inventions’ Exhibition.

Professor George Saliba

The lecture presentation then moved on to discuss the interview I conducted with Professor George Saliba who is a Professor of Arabic and Islamic Science at the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University. The main theme of the interview was to focus on astronomy and the role that Muslim scholars have played in this field. I cited a quote from Professor Saliba on how he qualifies his works as follows: “I study the development of scientific ideas from the late antiquity till early modern times, with a special focus on the various planetary theories that were developed within the Islamic Civilisation and the impact of such theories on early European astronomy.” Professor Saliba then discussed what were the inspirations that led him to enter into this field. He mentioned in particular a speech by Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr in Lebanon in the 1960’s and the late historian Nicola Ziadi who played a key role in inspiring him to enter the field of Arabic Islamic Sciences. Professor Saliba explained during his interview that 10th century Europe was in a state of intellectual decline and divorced from the Greek past. As Muslims began to settle in and around Europe in places like Andalusia, we began to see a period of intellectual advancement. I asked Professor Saliba about the role that Copernicus had played in the field of astronomy. Professor Saliba responded by stating that he was a Polish cleric who was born about 1478 and died in 1543. He came into contact with Islamic sciences and was able to clean the ancient Greek astronomical texts from their faults. He advocated what is termed as the heliocentric theory- that the centre of the universe is the Sun and not the earth – well before Newton’s time. The ground breaking point that Professor Saliba mentioned in this interview is that he has proven in his lectures how Copernicus had actually extrapolated his ideas at times verbatim from Muslim scholars such as Nasiruddin al-Tusi who had advocated such theories well before Copernicus. Copernicus used their theorems at times wholesale without necessarily understanding them totally. I explained to the audience that I asked Professor Saliba that why has it taken so long for such theories from Muslim scholars to come to the public fold and be acknowledged appropriately? Professor Saliba explained that Arabic scientific manuscripts could be found in European libraries from around the 16th century through the Islamic impact on the European domain via the Ottomans. He explained that the Europeans were linking back to the Greek period and not focussing on the Islamic scientific material and hence why it has taken so long to acknowledge these discoveries. Professor Saliba said that we should be indebted to a man, a genius historian of science by the name of Otto E. Neugebauer who located the manuscripts of Ibn Shatir kept at the Bodleian library in 1957. As soon as he saw the manuscripts, he could see the connection with Copernicus’s works. Another factor as to why it took so long to acknowledge the true sources of these theorems was the religious and political climate in the European domain at the time. If the European scholars had began to state that the sources of their ideas were in fact Muslim scholars, this would have led to a lot of resentment and backlash. This certainly could have been a key factor for the late acknowledgement of these theories. Professor Saliba then mentioned how the works of Nasiruddin al-Tusi are now acknowledged on the Vatican website annotated and explaining the link to Copernicus and that these are positive signs of how the recognition is developing slowly. Professor Saliba then discussed about the range of Muslim scholars who had contributed to the field of astronomical science and finished of his interview with a plea that it is imperative that the brightest minds of today should enter into this field and carry out further studies. The reason being, that there are so many Arabic manuscripts that have not been translated yet and there is no doubt that many more theories could potentially be linked to the contribution of Muslim scholars. Once again, the audience were fascinated with the insights that Professor Saliba had mentioned on the field of astronomy and the brief presentation I had given about the content of my interview with Professor George Saliba.

Professor Emilie Savage Smith

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Figure 5: Set of 10 posters.

The lecture presentation moved on to discuss the role that Muslim scholars have played in the field of medicine. I had the privilege of interviewing Emilie Savage Smith who is a Professor of the History of Islamic Science at the Oriental Institute, University of Oxford. As one of the leading historians of medieval Islamic medicine, she has written extensively about the history of anatomy, surgery, dissection, pharmacy and ophthalmology. Her work has focussed particularly upon the manuscript evidence for medieval scientific knowledge and her recent publication was cited which is Medieval Islamic Medicine (Edinburgh University Press, 2007). I began by asking Professor Savage-Smith as to how did the Muslim scholars begin to have an impact in the field of medicine? She replied by stating in around the 9th century, Arab scholars translated into Arabic a large number of Greek medical writings and developed it further with many amazing innovations. She then explained that Arabic material composed in the 9-12th centuries, then translated into Latin. It was the Arabic medical literature that provided medieval Europe with the ideas, practices from which early modern medicine arose. One of the reasons for this development was the open minded inter-faith dialogue that scholars had during this period. Professor Savage-Smith then mentioned some of the great Muslim scholars who had left a productive mark in the field of medicine. Scholars such as Al-Razi (a clinician) who headed hospitals in the native city of Ray and also in Baghdad. He wrote a book dedicated to Mansur in 903 and it was subsequently translated into Latin in the 12th century. The same Razi led the way in the treatment of diseases like smallpox. The scholar Ibn Sina, better known in the west as Avicenna, was also mentioned as a great physician and philosopher who wrote the book the Canon of Medicine. I then asked Professor Savage-Smith to comment on the innovations that Muslim scholars may have introduced into the field of medicine. She mentioned the scholar Ibn al Nafis and his explanation about the pulmonary circulation blood flow system. He explained that blood from the right ventricle of the heart must go though the lungs before reaching the left ventricles of the heart; whereas prior to his work it was thought that it went just directly from one ventricle, one portion of the heart to the other part of the heart and did not go to the lungs 300 years before anyone in Europe learnt about it. Muslim scholars played a leading role in the advancements of medical instruments. Abu Qassim Al-Zahrawi wrote the first treatise with illustrated instruments on surgery. Instruments like the obstetrical forceps, scissors like instruments for tonsillectomy, hidden knife to assist the surgical process and bandaging. I then explained to the audience how some of these ideas found their way into England. Professor Savage-Smith mentioned that in around 1720, the wife of the British ambassador to the Turkish court Lady Mary Montague was instrumental in introducing inoculation and now vaccination techniques for smallpox in England. Professor Savage-Smith mentioned that during the period of Muslim scholarly advancement in the field of medicine, there was no real distinction such as herbal medicine or traditional and alternative medicine as we tend to find today. Muslims were active in setting up pharmaceuticals and hospitals. Hospitals appeared in the 9th century in Baghdad, in Cairo at around 872 in the Ibn Tulun Quarter, the Mansuri hospital in Cairo. One of the most famous hospitals was the Al-Nuri hospital in Syria which was one of the first teaching hospitals and can still be visited today as a museum in Syria. The practitioners at this hospital adopted a non-interventionist approach to treating patients and also had separate wards for patients with different problems. I then asked Professor Savage-Smith about how mental health patients would have been treated during this period. She replied by stating that there was a therapeutic approach to mental health and every step was taken to assist the patient with mental health problems by using techniques such as music, recitation of the Quran before using any medicines on the patients. Professor Savage-Smith mentioned the scholar Al-Biruni who in the 11th century was instrumental in working on the theory of various drugs and their classifications. Professor Savage-Smith finished of her interview by stating that there is no doubt that modern medicine owes a great debt to the advancements introduced by Muslim scholars in the field of medicine and general health.

Dr. Zohor Idrisi

The next theme that I briefly touched on during the presentation was the Muslim contributions in the field of agriculture. I interviewed Dr. Zohor Idrisi who has completed a PhD in History & Geography at SOAS. Her thesis focussed on the history of cuisine and agriculture in the Muslim world. I first asked Dr. Idrisi about the agricultural conditions in Europe before the Muslims began to have an influence in this field. She replied by stating that the agricultural development in Europe was moribund before the Muslim contributions. There were crops but no sugar during the Roman period. The links to the Islamic period developed through research through the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties of Spain and north Africa. In around the 8th century, the feudal system in Europe regarded investment in technology with contempt. It was through the advent of paper from China, that when Muslims travelled to various corners of the globe, that they were able to pass on their ideas in a paper format and the Europeans were also able to benefit from these developments. Dr. Idrisi then went on to comment about some of the innovations that Muslims introduced into this field. One of them was the machine called ‘noria’. Muslim engineers produced hydraulic machines to develop and improve the water supply in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Water clocks were introduced and a lot of investment was put in to improve the reservoirs. Dr. Idrisi then commented on one of the most beautiful places in the Muslim world, namely the Alhambra gardens. She said one of the secrets of the way the gardens were developed was the constant automatic irrigation. I then asked Dr. Idrisi of what impact did these changes have on the quality of life of the people. She replied by stating that the Muslim period saw a radical change in the ownership of land from the feudal system of land tenure of the Roman empire. There were multi-faceted benefits on people’s quality of life as they had more riper crops, fresh fruits and also saw an increase in their life expectancy. The advancements in irrigation and crop production also saw another innovation which would have a big impact on improving this field. That was the introduction of calenders which would give indications as to what time in the year based on the seasonal fluctuations, one should harvest their crops. The calender of Cordoba in the 10th century and the Al-Banna calender from the 14th century are some of the most famous. I mentioned to the audience about the wonderful article titled “The Muslim Agricultural Revolution” written by Dr. Zohor Idrisi in this field and how it goes into much more depth into this area that I could explain in the limited time of the presentation. I finished of this segment by explaining how Dr. Idrisi mentioned the concept of trust and that as heritage belongs to God, it is something which we should try our best to cherish and preserve.

Figure 6: “Books for Schools” Project aimed at getting sponsorship to distribute 1,000,000 copies of the ‘1001 inventions’ book to various institutions internationally including schools, universities and libraries.

Further interviews

Due to the limited time span of the presentation, I mentioned to the audience that I am unable to do justice to all the interviews that I conducted. I explained to them in passing some of the other topics that I covered in my interviews were the Muslim contributions in China and what the Europeans can learn from this experience, the role of education in Islam from a classical and contemporary perspective and the ever expanding area of Islamic tourism. I explained that full details of all the interviews will soon be available in the forthcoming Muslim Heritage Interview Series publication.

Question and answer session

In the question and answer session, the feedback from the audience was very positive. Many in attendance stated that the field of Muslim heritage and the contributions that Muslim scholars have made to our civilisation is truly amazing and that they were not aware that it was Muslim scholars and innovators who had contributed in many of the areas that I mentioned during the presentation. There were a few questions about the current climate and the extremist elements in society which claim to use the name of Islam to forward and project their ideas on others. I explained to the audience that it is through the efforts of organisations like the FSTC with their 1001 Inventions project that people get to see the true face and legacy of Islam which will help dispel many of the distorted perceptions some people in society may have with reference to Islam. Finally, those in attendance collectively stated that it was one of the best presentations they had seen and listened to during the lunch hour slots at Markfield and were eager to find out more about the areas that I touched on and the projects that FSTC were working on. A handout of my presentation was passed on to many of the participants due to their request and I mentioned the website along with the website where they could keep stay up to date with the latest activities of FSTC.

*Hon. Research and Communications Officer, Foundation for Science Technology and Civilisation (UK).

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