The following essay aims to alert communities as to the particular significance of the Muslim civilisation and its historical role in contributing to the birth of modern civilisation. The author, Professor Salim Al-Hassani, a specialist of Muslim Heritage and a pioneer of its defense, focuses first on various instances of distorted history in scholarship, school curricula and media culture. He shows how unjustified is the suppression of centuries of history from history books and how the jump from Hellenistic times to Renaissance is rather the manifestation of ignorance and misconceptions. Presenting selected examples, he then proves that this suppressed period, belonging to the classical period of the history of Islam, and which lasted for about a millennium, knew a creative contribution to civilisation by men and women of different faiths. Those knowledge, science and art creators built on ancient knowledge and were the drive of one of the richest periods of history in terms of science, culture, technology and art.
Professor Salim T S Al-Hassani*
Table of contents
Note of the editor
The following article is a newly edited and augmented version of an essay presented first by Professor Al-Hassani, the Chairman of FSTC, at the conference “La Deuda Olvidada de Occidente “(The forgotten debt of the West) organised in Madrid in 21-26 October 2003 by the Fundacion La Huella Arabe. An earlier version was published on www.MuslimHeritage.com in 2004. © FSTC 2004-2010.
Figure 1: HRH Prince Charles of Wales. (Source).
In a memorable lecture on “Islam and the West” presented on 27th October 1993 in Oxford, HRH Prince Charles of Wales said the following decisive sentences:
“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 stems, I think, 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 .”
Figure 3: Mrs. Carleton S. Fiorina, chairman, president, and CEO of Hewlett-Packard Company (1999-2005). (Source).
There are many instances of distorted history, and many works have given attention to this matter . In this presentation focus will be on the other manner by which history is distorted: that is, the suppression of centuries of contribution to modern civilisation by the Muslim world. This negligence is apparent in academia, in the media and in the educational curriculum and associated history books, especially those aimed at the general public. The focus on this issue is to alert communities as to the particular significance of the Muslim civilisation and its historical role in giving birth to much of modern science and technology.
The following words by a famous lady well describes this situation and the debt that world history owes to the civilisation created by Muslims. They were pronounced by Mrs. Carleton S. Fiorina, chairman, president, and CEO of Hewlett-Packard Company (1999-2005) in a discourse on 29 September 2003:
“There was once a civilization 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 climes to tropics and deserts. Within its dominion 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 civilization’s commerce extended from Latin America to China, and everywhere in between.
Figure 4: Map of the Muslim World around 1400. The geographical extent of the classical Muslim civilisation covers large parts on three continents: Asia, Africa and Europe. (Source).
And this civilization was driven more than anything, by invention. Its architects designed buildings that defied gravity. Its mathematicians created the algebra and algorithms that would enable the building of computers, and the creation of encryption. 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 travel and exploration. Its writers created thousands of stories. Stories of courage, romance and magic. Its poets wrote of love, when others before them were too steeped in fear to think of such things.
When other nations were afraid of ideas, this civilization thrived on them, and kept them alive.
When censors threatened to wipe out knowledge from past civilizations, this civilization kept the knowledge alive, and passed it on to others. While modern Western civilization shares many of these traits, the civilization I’m talking about was the Islamic world from the year 800 to 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 civilization, 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 our notions 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, not inheritance. It was leadership that harnessed the full capabilities of a very diverse population–that included Christianity, Islamic, and Jewish traditions. This kind of enlightened leadership — leadership that nurtured culture, sustainability, diversity and courage — led to 800 years of invention and prosperity .”
Figure 5a-b: 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 Innovation in the Islamic World: Learning from the Past to Design the Future.
Among the academic voices who followed in similar foot steps, there is nothing better than to resort to John Glubb here who, in his History of the Arab People, tells us:
“Modern oriental studies have proved the falsity of this historical propaganda (the Idea of the 16th-17th century Renaissance, and that nothing happened between the 450s, the fall of the Roman empire, and such Renaissance), although the latter is still widely believed by the general public. Unfortunately, a great part of the educational world still adheres to these ancient taboos and the period of some five or six centuries, which separates the decline of Rome from the Norman invasion of England, is omitted from school curricula and from public examination. As is always the case, this falsification of history for propaganda purposes has injured us more than anyone else, and has largely been responsible for the many political errors, which our governments have committed in the Middle East in the last sixty years.
The history of ‘progress’, the rise of man from a primitive state to his modern condition, is a fascinating story. The interest is lost, however, when the continuity is concealed by the omission of periods of several centuries and the presentation of bits and pieces of history, gathered from here and there, in accordance with our own emotional prejudices or our national vanity .”
Figure 6: Illustration by Al-Biruni of different phases of the moon, from a manuscript of the Persian translation of his astronomy book Kitab al-tafhim li-awa’il sina’at al-tanjim (Book of Instruction in the Elements of the Art of Astrology). To read the English translation online, click here.
Of course Glubb only tells of those centuries up to 1066 (the time of the Norman invasion), but the whole period 450-1492, in fact is passed over as Dark Ages, and is altogether ignored as far as science and civilisation are concerned. At best, this time span is termed as “middle age”, an intermediary period, a uniform bloc, “vulgar centuries” and “obscure times”, as Pernoud says .
One challenges any audience to pick ten history books, look into them to find that in at least nine, the presentation of scientific achievements jumps from some Greek names of the late Antiquity, whomsoever it is, whether Ptolemy, Archimedes, or Galen, straight to Leonardo da Vinci, Copernicus and Galileo, consequently ignoring scientific and technological events of a period of 1000 years between the 6th and the 16th century, as if it were a sterile period. The same holds with respect to curricula at schools and colleges. More disastrously, even, as the curious audience can gather, from universities, too. How is it that higher learning institutions teach that nothing happened over a thousand years? This is not just beyond comprehension, but violates academic rules of rigorous questioning. Students, who are trained to think critically, suddenly face a sudden and not explained gap, darkness surrounding ten centuries, then suddenly history resumes moving and events happen, as if by miracle, all at once in the Renaissance. It defies logic. Things, as any scientist knows, do not appear by chance. Continuity is basic especially in the birth and rise of sciences; it is almost so in every other field of study.
Figure 7: Original drawing of the 3rd water raising machine described by Al-Jazari in his Kitab ma’rifat al-hiyal al-handasiya (The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Devices) completed in 1206. See Salim T. S. Al-Hassani and Colin Ong Pang Kiat, Al-Jazari’s Third Water-Raising Device: Analysis of its Mathematical and Mechanical Principles. Click here to view the animation of the machine.
How did we get many of the symbols of our modern life? By chance? Out of nowhere? Certainly not.
The forgotten period of ten centuries set aside as ‘vulgar and dark’ and given scant notice in books, curricula and at universities is actually the period when the grounds of modern science were mapped out and amplified.
It is the period when appeared the ten decimals (the Arabic numerals, our 1, 2, 3…, as a much easier way than the Latin i, ii, iii…, in handling calculations). It is then that algebra was created from scratch, derived from the rules, concepts and procedures exposed in the founding book Kitab al-jabr wa-‘l-Muqabala by Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi, a mathematician of 9th-century Baghdad. It is from the Latin translation of his name that the term ‘Algorism’ was extracted .
Is it logical and credible to describe these missing centuries therefore as the Dark Ages, we should ask?
Figure 8: Virtual reconstruction of Al-Jazari’s third pump by FSTC. (Source). Fig. 9: Drawing of the six-cylinder pump invented by Taqi al-Din ibn Ma’ruf and described by him in 1551 in his treatise Al-Turuq al-saniya fi al-‘ alat al-ruhaniya (Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, Arabic MS 5232, p. 38). See Salim Al-Hassani, The Machines of Al-Jazari and Taqi al-Din.
It was during this period that the modern observatory was born, in Baghdad, Damascus, Isfahan, Maragha, Samarkand and Istanbul, in particular, just as Sayili, Sédillot, Dreyer and Hetherington show us . It was during these centuries that the majority of our stars were given Arabic based names, and that astronomers gained a precise and experimentally valid understanding of the motions of the planets and that they built certain mathematical models that will inspire Copernicus in expounding the heliocentric hypothesis .
Figure 9: Drawing of the six-cylinder pump invented by Taqi al-Din ibn Ma’ruf and described by him in 1551 in his treatise Al-Turuq al-saniya fi al-‘alat al-ruhaniya (Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, Arabic MS 5232, p. 38). See Salim Al-Hassani, The Machines of Al-Jazari and Taqi al-Din.
It was during this period that we have the beginning of the modern institutions, Parliament and the exchequer, which were subject to great Islamic influence .
“It is during this period we have the birth of the universities, again thanks to Islamic influence”, as asserted by Castro and Ribera who highlighted the cultural legacy of the Muslims, but also of the Jews and Christians working together in Muslim Spain, al-Andalus .
It is during this period we recognise the beginning of naturally based medicines and hospitals, again with Muslim influence through the encouragement of doctors and physicians, as was the customin the Muslim world, from all faiths and groups.
The birth of the Gothic in architecture, and the beginnings of modern musical theory also belong to this so-called Dark Ages . It was then when the carpet was brought to England by Princess Eleanor from Spain to enhance her new English home.
It was during this period that we have the birth of many of our engineering devices, and modern technology, as the works by Al-Jazari and Taqi al-Din, testify . How else, and from where, indeed, do many of our mechanical devices come from if that period was dark? They certainly did not appear by chance in the 15th century.
Figure 10a-c: Parallel views of the virtual reconstruction of the pump. To view animations, click here and here. See also Salim Al-Hassani and Mohammed A. Al-Lawati, The Six-Cylinder Water Pump of Taqi al-Din: Its Mathematics, Operation and Virtual Design.
Concerning medicine, pharmacy and surgery, a great progress happened in the same centuries, when the fundamentals of the instruments, such as the forceps, the catgut suture and the palletising of pharmaceutical granules we have today were designed and made by that great mind of the age Abu ‘l-Qassim al-Zahrawi .
Figure 11: Front cover of the Latin translation of Al-Zahrawi’s influential medical book Al-Tasrif liman ‘ajaza ‘an al-ta’lif: Liber theoricae necnon practicae Alsaharavii, edited by Paolo Ricci (Augsburg: Impensis Sigismundi Grimm & Marci Vuirsung, 1519). (Source).
Chemistry too knew an unprecented development, and the workshops of Muslim chemists were so complex that they prefigure the modern laboratory. In this context, the experimental method was born and extensively used in accordance with Islamic antecedents as the sources cited herein can demonstrate .
It was during the period of the so-called Dark Ages, most of all, that the largest cultural exchanges between East and West took place .
Trade and pilgrims brought together Muslims, Christians, Jews, Chinese and Hindus in great exchanges of ideas and learning . The translators did the same, too, especially in the great Spanish city of Toledo and in Sicily . The Crusaders went east and brought many trades, skills, and aspects of learning back to the West, as Prutz superbly explains . Sarton, in his large Introduction to the History of Science, shows how science in that period was so universal, in fact more universal, by harnessing the skills of so many races and faiths as never had been the case . The Islamic scientific tradition itself involved the largest number of faiths and ethnic groups in a shared experience that has never been equalled. And which serves to our very modern world.
Figure 12a-b: Arabic botanical manuscript from the 15th century arranged in alphabetical order with illustrations of plants in vivid colours at Princeton University Library, MS 583H, © Princeton University Library, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. See the electronic edition of the manuscript.
In the West it has inevitably been the tradition to highlight Eurocentric culture based on endorsing and attributing all exclusively and solely to the Roman and Greek cultures. Even until quite late in the 20th century, grammar schools in the UK taught history from the Roman perspective, not unnaturally since Latin and Attic Greek with their literary contributions were de rigueur.
The historian Sarton beautifully describes continuity in science and technology as a ‘stately chariot’, stopping to change horses in the neighbourhood of an inn:
“The old Muslim postillions are being thanked and new ones are taking charge. The chariot is stopped, but the fresh horses are pawing the ground impatiently… It is the same old chariot, but the horses and postillions are changed from time to time, and the people riding in it change, too, one by one… It is a chariot that never comes back. It goes on and on as the spirit of mankind moves it; it has been driven by the Greeks, by Romans, by people of all kinds, lately by Muslims, now by Jews and Christians .”
Consequently, why shall we ignore and leap over these centuries and thus overlook the true origins of our modern civilisation? Why obscure the vital fact that all races and faiths are equally gifted, and that instead of hostility and strife, we can all live together taking the best from each other as the history of civilisation and learning has shown?
It is then quite appropriate to conclude with an extract from a speech delivered by The former Belgium Minister of Culture Paul Van Grembergen at the Congress of UMIVA on “Treasures of Islam” held in Antwerp, Belgium, on 22 March 2003:
Figure 13: The beginning of the first article of Part I of a manuscript of Kitab Al-Tasrif liman ‘ajaza ‘an al-ta’lif by Al-Zahrawi. The page shows his definition of medicine, quoted from Al-Razi, as the preservation of health in healthy individuals and its restoration unto sick individuals as much as possible by human abilities. (Source).
Figure 14: Mr. Paul Van Grembergen, Belgian former minister.
“These Islamic values that are reflected by the great Islamic civilisation have contributed to the progress and development of our Western society. Knowledge is clearly the key to development. Thanks to the knowledge and the intellect of the Muslim scientists, we were able to benefit from mathematics, philosophy, anatomy, chemistry, astronomy etc …The great writer Ibn Khaldun, who built the foundation for sociology and anthropology with his work Al-Muqaddima in the 14th century, is one example. His method is still being discussed in our universities. Contemporary astrologers base a great deal on the exact calculations of Ibn Umar al-Sufi to orientate in the universe. It was Al-Khwarizmi who made a breakthrough in mathematics in the 11th century. His calculations and formulas are nowadays still taught as the well-known algorithms. Also, our word “zero” originates from the Arabic word sifr. The great European explorers and geographers used to base their expeditions on the exact and complete works of the North Africans Al-Idrisi and Ibn Battuta. Thanks to the noble dedication of Harun al-Rashid who translated Greek works in Baghdad in the 9th century and also thanks to the analytical mind of Averroës (Ibn Rushd) in the 12th century, we were able in Europe to rediscover an enriched Greek philosophy. In other words, thanks to Islam, knowledge was preserved, further developed and passed on and this is without any doubt one of the important treasures of Islam.”
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*Emeritus Professor at the University of Manchester and Chairman of the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (FSTC), Manchester, UK.