Sunday, March 07, 2010



By Kevin Stoda

As the main character, played by Ben Kingsly, in the new film, 1001 INVENTIONS AND THE LIBRARY OF SECRETS [ a “blockbuster” at the Science Museum in London this winter] stated “The Dark Ages” were “misnamed”.

Meanwhile, “Salim Al-Hassani, who is emeritus professor of Mechanical Engineering and currently a professorial fellow in the School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures, University of Manchester” was honored just last autumn for his historical research. The award came from the British Science Association. The Association noted that “He [Dr. Hassani] has spent the last two decades debunking the myth of ‘The Dark Ages’ by raising awareness of the scientific achievements that took place in India, China, Muslim Spain and the Middle East between the 7th and 17th centuries.”

NOTE: “Every year the BSA bestows Honorary Fellowship upon individuals who have ‘promoted openness about science in society’ and ‘engaged and inspired adults and young people with science and technology’.”

The stories and myths Hassani has been debunking are of the Dark Ages era. He aimed first at European scientific training and students of history. However, now the Science Museums in Europe wants the masses to know more. This new short film with Ben Kingsly is only one part of this drive to write a more balanced global and European history of science and culture in recent decades.



The character Kingsly plays states that “Never has an Era of History been so poorly named” when he thinks of those words: “The Dark Ages.” Hassani has also clearly noted and persuaded Historians of Science to agree: ““How true was Isaac Newton when he remarked that if he had seen more than others it was because he was standing on the shoulders of giants. I’m grateful for the opportunity to bring this message to the public, and humbled that the BSA has recognised my work in this way”.

While for some in the Western European world the ages between the Fall of Rome and the Rise of the Renaissance in Italy were dark, especially in comparison to what the Islamic Civilizations and its scientists and doctors rolled forth in the same millennia. This is why the “interactive exhibition [currently in London] is packed with discoveries and inventions made in Muslim civilisation for a thousand years. With automatic machines and medical marvels, astronomical observations and inspiring architecture, find out about a period of history you might never have explored before.”

Listed here are the themes of the exhibition on Islamic science and how their inventions and creations spread across both Northern African & Middle East, i.e. to eventually the farthest reaches of Western and Northern Europe during the final centuries of the Middle Ages:

(1) 2010: The thousand-year-old inventions that still shape everyday life
(2) Market: How influential ideas spread through travel and trade
(3) School: Learning, libraries and their links with the past.
(4) Hospital: How ancient approaches to health have influenced today’s medicine.
(5) Town: Why East and West share so much architectural heritage.
(6) World: The explorers of a thousand years ago.
(7) Universe: How ancient astronomers expanded our view of the universe.

Here is the trailer to the film and exhibition. [Click here to read of the background to the film from the Jameel Foundation.]


It is important for all world citizens to get to know the facts of history. However, one needs to view each exhibition critically and determine how much fact and fiction may lay behind the interpretations and verbiages. For example, in the wake of this exhibition in London, CNN has recently attempted to share the Muslim history of science acquired from visiting this exhibition at the Science Museum.
However, a Hindu foundation immediately jumped into the fray to criticize some of the narration coming out of the Muslim science educational network, such as through the Jameel Foundation, that (is emerging and) its narration on science. The Foundation found the CNN report lacking balance and appropriate criticism.

Sacchi Lamb of the Hindu American Foundation charged in his letter to CNN: “Dear Editor, CNN's article Muslim inventions that shaped the modern world, published January 29, presents ideas that clearly mislead its readers. The introductory statement that ‘the first university ... is among surprising Muslim inventions that have shaped the world we live in today’ is not only misleading, but incorrect. An ‘invention’ is defined as a ‘new composition, device, or process.’ However, this university is far from being the ‘first’ outright university. While the article later clarifies that the invention was granting of a degree, the initial inaccurate claim has already been made. This is insulting to ancient Greek, Chinese, Korean, and Indian civilizations all of whom had universities prior to 859 CE. The Hindu and Buddhist center of higher education in Takshila (Taxila) dates as far back as the 7th century BCE. There a student could effectively "major" in subjects such as literature, science, law, and medicine. The university in Fez, Morocco is hardly an ‘invention’ in that respect.”

NOTE: If I recall, the university (madrassa) in Fez was/is likely the oldest open school that did not require wealth from parents nor Confucian exams for entry. However, this, too might be an inaccurate claim on my part. In any case, it still might be the oldest functioning university—if not in the world, at least in Africa and the Middle East. The one in Fez was founded in 859. It is called the University of Qarawiyin.

Lamb continued, “Secondly, the ‘invention’ of surgery by the Muslim doctor Al Zahwari is yet another example of misleading information, when in fact surgeries of many kinds were performed by several civilizations long before Al Zahwari. The Hindu text Sushruta Samhita, written in 600 BCE, is filled with detailed seminal descriptions of surgical procedures and instruments that are conceptually used today. How, then, can CNN reliably credit Al Zahwari with this ‘invention’? If Al Zahwari's inventions were limited to dissolving cat gut stitches, c-sections, and forceps, then implying that the field of surgery was ‘invented’ by Muslims is blatantly incorrect.”

Finally, the speaker for Executive Council of the Hindu American Foundation concluded, “We request CNN to republish this article in a more forthright and accurate manner so as not to make false implications and thereby, diminish the contributions of various ancient civilizations. We also urge CNN to publish similar articles highlighting the contributions of ancient civilizations mentioned above.”

Click here to go to the original CNN article—i.e. “Muslim Inventions that Shaped the Modern World”,

In the article, the author, Olivia Sterns is simply reviewing the claims of Hassani about the 10 most influential inventions of the Shining Era of Muslim Science, which had occurred during the West’s Dark Ages. Hassani’s favorites include surgery, coffee, hospitals, the mechanical crank for machines, algebra, and optics.

The CNN article is fun to read and shows many Americans and Europeans an important perspectives on the development of the West over a millennia—that has been described as a dark era by traditional historians too often. CNN’s article also has a nice link to the Muslim Heritage site, which has also been working for several decades to clean up the image of Islam and Sciences in the Western World.

On the other hand, the Incas, Mayans, Indian, Southeast Asian, and Chinese civlizations have a right to criticize the idea that surgery was first performed at the end of the first millennia A.D. Each of these distant corners of the globe have shown evidence of even carrying out brain surgery long before the Muslims tried their hand at similar surgery. However, the idea of using cat-gut to do stitching was certainly brought first to the West during the Golden Islamic era.
However, the idea of using cat-gut to do stitching was certainly brought first to the West during the Golden Islamic era. Moreover, the organized university used only in the West for several centuries entered the West through Cordoba, Granada, and Selvilla settlements of the Islamic Empires in Spain during the Dark Ages. The Arab inventions in science, cartography, and inventions of new devices were the reasons why the best sailing technologies known in the 15th Century enabled the Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese to travel and circumnavigate continents. In short, the Western Renaissance was formed in the bellies of Islamic Universities, the knowledge of which were used and appropriated by secular European an Christian educators. This flowering of Islamic educational knowledge soon evolved into Western focused schools of science, literature and technology from the 16th century onwards.

Final NOTE: In the book by George Makdisi, entitled the RISE OF COLLEGES: “It is stated that Muslim institutionalized education was religious, privately organized, and open to all Muslims who sought it. It was based on the waqf, or charitable trust. The state or governing powers had no control over the institution but instead the content of education and its methods were left to the teaching profession itself because the founder was usually a layman guided by the wishes of the professor for whom he instituted his foundation.” Once secularism took hold in Europe, the idea of a universal educational system open to the masses would take hold. It was this idea of the universal right of education which eventually appealed to early founders and citizens of the U.S.A. in the late 17th through early 19th centuries, leading America to eventually lead the world in the sheer number of higher educational institutions created in the 19th and 20th centuries.



Anonymous sfauthor said...

Nice posting. Do you know about these Samhita texts?

2:05 AM  

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