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A different view of history

We owe more to Islam than we think. A university professor from Manchester now worked for the first time on reviews of interrelated source material that gives a different view of modern history.

According to Professor Salim Al Hassani one would have to call the span of time usually known as the Dark Ages correctly the “Muslim Ages”. For whilst the Western civilization slept, the Islamic world reached its zenith in many scientific and cultural discoveries. “In Europe, America and most of the English speaking countries it is taught that after the Greek and the Roman empires time was standing still: One speaks of the so-called Dark Ages. However, I claim: It was the Golden Age of Islam,” says Al Hassani. He thinks that so much the worse the contributions of Muslim scientist have been appreciated very little until now by the West.

Since 1993 Professor Al Hassani, who teaches linguistics and cultural sciences at the University of Manchester, is searching for the alleged “missing history” of more than 1000 years. He reviewed hundreds of Arabic scriptures to supplement history books with the bits and pieces from the Islamic world. In fact many important discoveries and inventions have been made in the years between 600 and 1600 CE in a time when the Muslim world spanned from China to southern Spain. Nevertheless people today know only little about what inventions the Western world owes to Muslims. Salim Al Hassani is convinced: It was Muslim scholars who laid the foundation for the later bloom of renaissance.

Many findings of Hellenistic classic were handed down to us from Muslims. But the Arabic scholars were more than mere torch bearers who preserved the Greek knowledge for us to later give it back to the West. Because differing from Greek science the Muslim science did not concentrate on theory but was putting things into practice. New findings were gathered by performing experiments and observations; whole disciplines were founded that way. In many verses of the Qur´an natural procedures are described – beginning with the creation of the Universe up to the fertilized egg cell. Humans are supposed to investigate their environment and signs of creation, this is Islam. Disciplines like astronomy, medicine, mathematics, architecture, and geography developed into important basics for scientific cognition in medieval Islam.

Flagship science Medicine

"Allah has not sent any illness without sending a remedy for it at the same time” one Hadith says. Muslim scientists were optimistic that any disease is curable indeed, if they only – if God wants it – find the right cure for it. Muslim doctors founded the first hospitals in the world, they developed expert knowledge that was found in the West not until one thousand years later. Without Islamic medicine,Western medicine was not imaginable. Around 1156 CE the “Al Nuri” hospital in Damascus was the biggest und most modern hospital far and wide. More than 8000 beds were available; medical care was for free. (Today we find the Museum for Arabic medicine and science there.) However, the center of medical sciences was Baghdad. Outstanding doctors like the Persian Abu Bakr Mohammad Ibn Zakariya ar-Razi (864-930) worked here– pioneer of obstetrics and ophthalmology, founder of pediatrics; he discovered the sterilizing property of alcohol, Arabic “Al Kull = The whole” and used it as antiseptic.

When it came to finding a place for the large hospital in Baghdad, Ar Razi hung a piece of meat in three places and finally chose the one where the meat showed the least signs of rottenness. Besides working as a surgeon and leader of the clinic he researched in the field of measles and pox. His famous book about pox was translated into Latin in 1565 CE for the first time. Ar Razis most important work is an encyclopedia in 23 volumes which is one of the broadest medical essays which had been published until then. He is supposed to have written 183 medical books; the Iranians commemorate the merits of their outstanding star medic every August 27.

Also appreciated for his achievements in the field of medicine is Abu Ali al Hussain Ibn Sina (980-1037) who was born in the Persian Afschane near Buchara (today Uzbekistan), better known in the West as Avicenna. Even in the medical faculty of the Sorbonne in Paris his portrait can be found. The one who read Noah Gordon’s “The physician” will be familiar with his name – because the protagonist of the novel studies medicine under him.

An old saying says “The one who wants to be a good physician, must be an Avicennist.” Ibn Sina’s work on the basic principles of medicine Al-Qanun fi-l-Tibb (“Canon of medicine”) or just “Canon” was the probably most frequently used standard work in the Western world as well. Described are topics like the spread of diseases, curing skin-, nerves- and sexual diseases; description and analysis of many psychological und pathological facts; broken bones, organ dysfunction, pharmaceutics and similar. Until the 17th century it was used at medical schools like Louvain and Montpellier for basic knowledge and according to UNESCO has the Canon even been used until 1909, which means until the Age of modern medicine, at the University of Brussels. Ibn Sina, who is also called the “Islamic Galen”, was the first to describe the disease pattern of Meningitis; also he was the first to understand why epidemics spread and why tuberculosis is infectious. 900 years after his death Turkey has since 1937 a commemoration day to honour the Great Muslim physician and author.

Algebra, Algorithms, Astronomy

Much which got to us from the Arabic world we until now use as a matter of course. Only few may know that we owe these beautiful, enterprising or useful discoveries to Muslim scholars and inventors.

Many might perhaps know that algebra came to the West from the Arabic world, invented by the Persian mathematics mastermind al-Khwarizmi (780-850) who developed both the science of algorithms and the use of decimal numbers and transferred the number Zero from Indian to Arabic and by that to the modern number system. Many may know that coffee, our favorite drink (1,6 billion cups are consumed every day), is originally an Arabic, even though a more accidental discovery: In the eighth century the shepherd boy Khalid noticed that his animals ate red berries which made them remarkably active. Sufis in Yemen made a drink, al-qahwa from the red berries which they drank to stay awake and concentrated when they prayed late at night.

However, who knows that Abu al-Qasim Khalaf ibn al-Abbas Al Zahrawi (936-1013) developed more than 200 surgical instruments which revolutionized medical science? Who would have thought that the first globe occurred already in the 12th century CE, constructed by Muslim geographer Abu Abd Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi (1100-1166)? The pure silver sphere weighed 400 kg and showed the seven continents – with important trade routes, rivers and seas, big cities, valleys and mountains. For Roger II, king of Sicily, al-Idrisi made an atlas with 70 cards, the so-called book of Roger in which he put the continents Europe, Asia and northern Africa. In the following centuries al-Idrisi’s world cards were used throughout Europe; and even Christopher Columbus used them for his journeys. 350 years before Columbus and 2 centuries before Marco Polo al-Idrisi showed that the earth is a sphere. A view that was shared by Muslim scholars in general at that time – when at the same time people in Europe still believed that the earth is flat.

Who knows that the Egyptian doctor Ibn an-Nafis (1210-1288) for the first time described the minor blood circle respectively the lunge circle in the 13th century CE? In addition he found the supply of the heart by coronary vessels. But only in 1957, 670 years after his death, these discoveries were posthumuosly attributed to him.

And who here did ever hear of Abbas Ibn Firnas (810-887), who in 852 built the first aircraft and jumped off the minaret of the great mosque of Cordoba? His second and more successful flight he made when he was nearly 70 years old. For almost 20 years he worked to improve the first glider. One thousand years before the Wright brothers and seven centuries before Leonardo da Vinci’s constructions Ibn Firnas was the first man in history performing a scientific attempt to fly. In his honor the Libyans issued a stamp with his face and in Iraq the Ibn-Firnas-airport north of Baghdad is named after him.

More popular in the Arabic as well as in the Western world is Abu Ali al Hasan Ibn al Haitham or “Alhazen” (965 -1039), born in Basra, Iraq. He is not only considered the founder of optics, he was also the most often cited physician of the middle ages and performed epoch-making experiments in mathematics, astronomy and physics. He invented the first pinhole camera he called qamara, the Arabic word for “private room” or “dark room”. Since 2003 an Iraqi 10000-dinar-banknote reminds of him and deep in space the asteroid 59239 was called “Alhazen”.

The Iraqi scholar al Haitham investigated the structure of the eye, identified the importance of the lens and disproved the “seeing ray theory” of the Greeks, who were assuming that unseen light is leaving the human eye and scanning the environment. His research concerning refraction made him build reading stones from glass, making him the inventor of reading glasses. His scriptures, including the famous Kitab al manazir (book of optics) are supposed to have inspired Roger Bacon to invent the glasses in the 13th century. However, many of his cognitions about optics and refraction which had great influence on European thinkers from Bacon to Kepler were later attributed to Isaac Newton.

Today it is no secret anymore that even the best known inventors and scientists of the West, including Roger Bacon, Leonardo Da Vinci, Johannes Kepler or Nicholas Copernicus, got the bigger part of their inspirations from the works of their Arabic colleagues. Nevertheless it is not or only in outlines noted in our history books. People like to think that modern civilization was made from nothing in the Renaissance. Vanity? Professor Al Hassani finds a shortsighted, if not to say ethnocentric world view.

Christian Dogma

While the Islamic world gripped for the stars of science and the light of awareness, the Christian occident was stuck in darkness. This can even be understood literally as Islamic cities like Cordoba in Andalusia taken by Arabs in 711 CE and becoming capital of Muslim Spain only four years later got street lighting in a time when London could still be considered a “dirty, dark hole”. Europe had hardly any infrastructure not to mention central government. Students and pupils from all parts of the world came to Cordoba, to study there. In 9th century the library of St. Gallen was considered the largest European library with 36 books; in Muslim Cordoba at the same time scholars had access to 500000 books.

The Catholic Church made its view clear: Freedom of thought on whatever topic is heretical, satanic nonsense. Who nonetheless dared to pronounce ideas deviating from official Dogma, be it out of scientific curiosity only, offended against the salvation of the clerical world view and was punished by Inquisition. From the humanistic point of view it was a period of decline. Many of the former achievements of the Greek Roman time – in the field of literature, science, technology and civilization – were decomposed in the course of the centuries. Not surprising that Muslims recognized Christian Europe as retarded, disorganized and of no relevance. Cities like Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo and Cordoba were in contrast centers of civilization, commerce and culture.

House of wisdom

Dar-al-Islam – Muslim world – stretched over three continents. Under the Abbasids (749-1258) it reached unrivaled levels of civilization. In a so-called conservative revolution in Iraq, the Abbasids took over from the Umaijades which were at the time considered as too worldly by many pious people. Newly build Baghdad became capital around 762 because of its favorable situation. From there the great Muslim empire was to be ruled for the next five-hundred years. In that time Baghdad was the wealthiest city of the world, center for art, culture, science and research and the second largest town after Constantinople.

Abbasid caliph Mohammad al-Mahdi (775-785) soon became aware of his special interest in scientific works. Many things of his private collection were from his loot in foreign countries. His son continued to collect. Also his successor Harun ar-Raschid (786-809) – his caliphate brought the great cultural renaissance in Baghdad and other cities of the empire – enjoyed outstanding works beyond price which had become a grand library in the meantime. It was the very Harun ar-Rashid who founded Bait al Hikmah, the “house of wisdom” and that way gave the collection of knowledge a permanent place. Only after a few years it was generally know that in Baghdad had emerged a center of humanities and science of so far unmatched dimension. (In 1004 Fatimide caliph Al-Hakim bi Amr Allah founded in Cairo in a similar tradition the Dar al Hikmah).

Here met the crème de la crème of Muslim scientist from all over the world. Each day they came together to study the art of reading and writing; many worked on translations and trained themselves in dialogue and discourse. Here Persian works were translated as well as all works of the antique world which could possibly be found – Galen, Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemaus, Archimedes and so on. Baghdad became a cosmopolitan melting pot; people spoke Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Syrian, Aramaic and Sanskrit (in which many old Indian manuscripts about Mathematics were written).

Such lively intellectual activities were especially possible because of paper manufacturing. The first paper came to Iraq around 750 from China – by the silk route via Samarqand – four centuries before it came to Europe. Shortly after that the people of Baghdad built the first paper mill (1293 the first European paper mill was built in Bologna). In the Suq al-Warraqin, Baghdad’s paper market, hundreds of paper shops lined up, mostly run by teachers or writers. Many of them were little centers of science and literature. By the end of the 10th century paper had completely displaced vellum and papyrus in the entire Arabic world.

Also Abdallah al Ma’mun planned to continue the work of his father Harun ar-Raschid and be a good patron of Arts and knowledge for his folks – however before that he had to face a nasty civil war against his brother al-Amin to ensure his caliphate (813-833). Al-Ma’mun was an Intellectual driven by his unquenchable thirst for knowledge. It is said that he wrote to the governor of Sicily to ask him for the whole library of Sicily which was supposed to have at that time some significant books about philosophy and science. The answer of the governor was positive: He had have a copy of each book from the library made for the caliph.

On another occasion al-Ma’mun send over one hundred camels to bring him hand-written books and manuscripts from Churasan in Iran to Baghdad. Al-Ma’mun had have build the worlds first observatory; he founded a hospital and over 300 institutes of education. Whenever possible he spend time with the scholars and took part in their discourses and discussions.

This place of knowledge and wisdom should in the four centuries to come see many well known personalities of science and uncounted pupils and students from all over the world. Many discussions were to be had, many findings made, before in the 13th century the decline of the great Islamic period of prosperity began. In 1258 Baghdad was destroyed and marauded by the Mongols and it is told that the ink of many thousands of books which were thrown in the Tigris by the Mongols colored the water black for a long time.

140 cities an the waiting list

"How fast we forget history”, George Washington once bemoaned. Professor Al Hassani took this warning seriously. He has done everything, to put the Muslim heritage back to people’s minds. He founded a trust for science, technology and civilization and he could win many known scientist and personalities; he wrote the aforementioned bestseller “1001 Inventions. Muslim Heritage In Our World.” And as if this was not enough, he invented an exhibition with the same title, which was shown last year for the first time in the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester. In only three months 80000 visitors came. “1001 Inventions” is to be seen until February in the National Museum of Cardiff, Wales; more places of display shall be the Think Tank in Birmingham, the Glasgow Science Center and if there is time London and Newcastle. After that the exhibition will go on its long journey throughout Europe and to the Arabic world. 140 cities in the UK and abroad are on the waiting list of the exhibition heads. A tremendous success, for which Professor al Hassani bargained the least.

Nevertheless even after visiting the exhibition and reading the book some questions remain unanswered. For example: Why did the Islamic time of prosper with great achievements in science and culture end so abruptly with the beginning of renaissance? And why is the contribution of the Muslim world to advancements in science nowadays so little compared to other countries. To these questions the Professor has – at least for the moment – no answers. But this does not impair the extremely positive – and often amusing – impression of the gathered facts of history of the Orient as well as the Occident.

A large interest for Islamic faith, its conventions and Islamic culture and history has especially been there after the terror acts of September 11, 2001, says al Hassani. “Suddenly people wanted to know everything about Islam.” The great interest shows in addition, how strongly people try to really understand and get closer and that they by no means reject everything foreign or different. Consoling to know. In times like these, where we have modern crusades, where clear-cut concepts of the enemy grow stronger, where the West does not fear any religion like it fears Islam and where even politicians and heads of States talk about “clash of civilizations”, there should be 10001 or even 100001 such projects.

Web site of the exhibition: www.1001inventions.com

Andrea Bistrich

Translated from German by Way-to-Allah Association (Way-to-Allah.com)
Source: Die Tageszeitung junge Welt from May02.2007/ page 10