Inventing Islam

January 29, 2008

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1001 Inventions describes itself as “a unique UK-based educational project that reveals the rich heritage that the Muslim community share with other communities in the UK and Europe.” It says that it is “a non-religious and non-political project seeking to allow the positive aspects of progress in science and technology to act as a bridge in understanding the interdependence of communities throughout human history”—and it does this by highlighting 1,001 inventions that Muslims are supposed to have brought to the world. This exhibit is designed for maximum popular appeal: “1001 Inventions consists of a UK-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.” It invites participants to “Discover Muslim Heritage in our World in seven conveniently organised zones: home, school, market, hospital, town, world, and universe.”


Many of these 1,001 inventions involve things on the order of “the world’s first soft drink,” and the perspective of this enterprise’s organizers becomes clear from a section detailing astronomical revelations found in the Qur’an. In a manner reminiscent of Khruschev-era Soviet propaganda about how Russia invented everything from baseball to zoology, 1001 Inventions frequently asserts that innovations and discoveries usually attributed to Westerners actually originated in the Islamic world. “Abbas ibn Firnas,” we’re told, “was the first person to make a real attempt to construct a flying machine and fly. His first flight took place in 852 in Cordoba when he wrapped himself in a loose cloak stiffened with wooden struts and jumped from the minaret of the Great Mosque of Cordoba. Though this attempt was unsuccessful, he continued working on improving his design.” And a bit more seriously, “The Polish scholar and inventor Copernicus is credited as the founder of modern astronomy. Historians have recently established that most of his theories were based on those of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi and Ibn al-Shatir. Ibn al-Shatir’s planetary theory and models are exactly mathematically identical to those prepared by Copernicus over a century after him, which raised the issue of how Copernicus acquired such elements of information. The line of transmission lies in Italy where Greek and Latin materials that made use of al-Tusi’s device were circulating in Italy at about the time Copernicus studied there.”


Such assertions only highlight the discomfiture of those who make them. For if Muslims really did make innovations in aerodynamics, astronomy, and other fields long before Europeans did, what happened then? Why were the Europeans the ones who made use of these discoveries for technological advancement? Even if Copernicus (who came from a devout Catholic family and may have been a priest himself) was influenced by Ibn al-Shatir, which is not universally accepted, why didn’t Muslims make use of his insights the way Copernicus did? (For more on this, see Thomas Woods.) Al-Shatir died in 1375, just under a hundred years before Copernicus was born in 1473. Yet in that century, and in the centuries thereafter, Islamic astronomers did nothing significant with their coreligionist’s discoveries. If Islam contained the seeds of the high level of cultural attainment that the Islamic world enjoyed at its apex, why has it been unable to reverse its precipitous decline from those heights? Many Muslim and non-Muslim writers today answer this by blaming the West, but this just once again avoids the problem—for if Islam contains the means by which civilization can advance beyond anything the non-Muslim world has to offer, one would think that Muslims would be able to devise ways to circumvent the West’s deleterious influence.


Directly opposed to Islam’s repression of invention and innovations is Christianity’s—especially Catholicism’s—cultivation of learning and exploration. Few European or American students recognize, for example, the Catholic Church’s pivotal role in the development of the university, science, free market economics, charitable institutions, and even secular legal codes. Rodney Stark writes that medieval Europe’s advances in production methods, navigation, and war technology “can be traced to the unique Christian conviction that progress was a God-given obligation, entailed in the gift of reason. That new technologies and techniques would always be forthcoming was a fundamental article of Christian faith. Hence, no bishops or theologians denounced clocks or sailing ships—although both were condemned on religious grounds in various non-Western societies.” As Bernard Lewis reports, while medieval Catholic Europe invented and made use of clocks, in 1560, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, the Austrian ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, wrote that his hosts had “never been able to bring themselves to print books and set up public clocks. They hold that their scriptures, that is, their sacred books, would no longer be scriptures if they were printed; and if they established public clocks, they think that the authority of their muezzins and their ancient rites would suffer diminution.” It was not until the mid-nineteenth century, when Islamic norms were in retreat, that the first public clock was installed in Constantinople. This may have been the first public clock erected in any Islamic country.


The effects of Christianity’s openness to innovation and Islam’s resistance to it reverberate through many fields. Even in medicine, while the Islamic world points proudly to many early physicians and medical theorists, it was not a Muslim, but Belgian physician and researcher Andreas Vesalius who paved the way for modern medical advances when he published the first accurate description of human internal organs, De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body) in 1543. Why wasn’t a Muslim able to do this? Because Vesalius was able to dissect human bodies, a practice forbidden by Islam. What’s more, Vesalius’s book is filled with detailed anatomical drawings—but also forbidden in Islam are artistic representations of the human body. Muslims, however, did allow themselves to benefit from Western creativity. Lewis notes that in the late fifteenth century, Persian mystical poet Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jami noted that his vision, which had become extremely poor, was saved “with the aid of Frankish glasses.”

Adapted from Religion of Peace? Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t, by Robert Spencer, with permission of the author.

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