June 21st, 2009 15:23 EST
Islam has Lost Academic Lead in the Sciences?
On October 30th, 2001, with the terrorist attacks of September 11th fresh in everyone`s mind, The New York Times science section, which brightens each Tuesday of my life, carried as its lead story a survey of Islamic scientific achievements entitled How Islam Won, and Lost, the Lead in Science. "
Language is a funny thing. The words that meant one thing in 2001 may strike us entirely differently in 2009. When I read this article in 2001 I understood The New York Times to be trying to keep a seeming conflict between Islam and the West in historical perspective. I understood the Gray Lady to be saying that we must understand that Islam is far greater than a relative handful of murderous ignoramuses.
But now as I glance at that headline on my desk, where the article has had a place of honor all these years, I perceive the headline`s language to be intellectually bankrupt and venal. I perceive it to reveal an underlying conviction that our lives and cultures are derbies in which there are winners and losers. At the end of the day, I perceive that seemingly innocuous headline as portraying the most squalid aspects of capitalist thought.
Caravel, 15th Century
This is not to say that I have given up on enlightened, compassionate capitalism. I have not given up. But what we have witnessed in the financial sector in the last decade gives me pause: unbridled avarice, piracy and predation.
History ebbs and flows. The Times could have as easily said that Islam merely passed the torch to others. The Times could have said that the Greeks and the Indians had left a trove of evolutionary knowledge that the Arabs appreciated and codified. There were many ways to write that headline, as there are many ways to write a poem or a song. But the actual headline was about winning and losing, not progress, not evolution, not the ebb and flow of the human sensibility.
It was a casino headline, indicative of a culture obsessed with winning and losing. It may derive from our extreme individualism or from our history as an underdog surviving and overcoming huge odds. But wherever it is coming from it betrays an anti-historical approach to knowledge. Knowledge in the context of such a headline becomes an asset, a weapon, an edge. Its value is not in and of itself but rather in its ability to help us defeat someone. Knowledge becomes little better than a religion or philosophy that insists only it is correct, everyone else is wrong and therefore less. The story of mankind`s progress towards enlightenment, towards a world in which there will be no disease and war, is lost in the horse-race mentality of the moment.
And what is also lost is any historical sense that the achievements of each culture in due time are supplanted by the greater achievements of other cultures. Such a headline writes the very historicity out of history.
Everything Islam achieved reverberates in our own culture: our travels to the moon, our nanotechnology, our medical breakthroughs. Just as everything the Greeks achieved reverberated in Muslim culture.
But if we choose to see cultural achievement as a crap shoot, as earnings taken for risk, we cheapen the grand march of history and the evolution of the race. It is one thing to compete for market share, one thing to wish to prosper in global competition, but quite another thing to see life and culture as gaming. We must not lose this subtlety or we shall lose much more than we think.
The olympics of ancient Greece were highly competitive, but they were also conceived as representing an ideal of athletic prowess, beauty, decency and generosity of spirit. To turn them into mere commercial or political competition would have been to soil them. It would have been an abomination. We ought to approach history in the same light.
I have kept that Science Times article on my desk because I have nurtured a lifelong interest in the interaction of the Muslims with the cultures they inherited and their interaction with Christendom and ultimately the entire West. For more than fifteen years I have intensely studied the ways Islamic achievements were assiduously written out of Western histories. And I have addressed some of this bigoted redaction in a trilogy of novels I have been refining for just as long a time.
For example, Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese navigator and seaman, was habitually credited with opening sea routes to Calicat, The Jopons and Cathay, as they were anciently called. For whom did he open these sea routes? Certainly not for the Muslims. When he arrived in East Africa he may well have told an old Arab navigator of his intention to find these routes, to which Achmed ibn Madjid might well have replied, Have they been lost? We don`t know if this conversation actually took place, but it seems likely, since Ibn Madjid was Vasco`s navigator when he sailed to Calicat. But Vasco got the credit for discoveries that were common knowledge to Arab seamen. And what Western student heard about Ibn Madjid until recently?
Indeed the whole of Arab seafaring was for a time written out of Western histories, in the same way the Romans were said to have been poor sailors when in fact marine archaeology has now shown them to have been prodigious sailors. The myth of poor Arab prowess at sea was not laid to rest until 1946, when Alan Villiers, an Australian sailor, wrote a history of Omani seafaring in National Geographic. Nothing had been said previously because then as now the Arabs had been demonized and devalued.
We now know that at one time the Roman Catholic Church was mightily alarmed by the prospect of being surrounded by pagan Viking seamen on the one hand and infidel Arab seamen on the other. And we know that the Vikings and Arabs engaged each other repeatedly over at least a century on the high seas and rivers. We also know, after a long period of silence about it, that the modern sailing ship is none other than the Arab lateen rig. Those famous Portuguese caravels that opened up trade between the West and the East and the new world, too, were simply knockoffs of Arab ships the Portuguese had encountered off the coasts of Africa.
This is the ebb and flow of history. Must it be cast as market competition? Must it be cheapened, this human striving for excellence and enlightenment?