Friday, July 24, 2009

What happened to Arab brilliance?

What happened to the Islamic scholars who sought scientific progress and social justice? What happened to Arab culture and learning? Has progress been strangled by tyranny? Why the disparaging view of Arabs in the West?

‘The names al-Khwarizmi, Avicenna, al-Idrisi, and Averroes - giants of Arab learning and dominant figures in medieval Europe for centuries - today invoke little if any response from the educated lay reader. Most are forgotten, little more than distant memories from a bygone era. Yet these were just a few of the players in an extraordinary Arab scientific and philosophical tradition that lies hidden under centuries of Western ignorance and outright anti-Muslim prejudice. A recent public opinion survey fount that a majority of Americans see “little” or “nothing” to admire in Islam or the Muslim world. But turn back the pages of time and it is impossible to envision Western civilization without the fruits of Arab science: al-Khwarizmi’s art of algebra, the comprehensive medical teachings and philosophy of Avicenna, the lasting geography and cartography of al-Idrisi, or the rigorous rationalism of Averroes.

Even more important than any individual work was the Arabs’ overall contribution that lies at the very heart of the contemporary West - the realization that science can grant man power over nature.

The power of Arab learning, championed by Adelard of Bath, refashioned Europe’s intellectual landscape. Its reach extended into the sixteenth century and beyond, shaping the groundbreaking work of Copernicus and Galileo. This brought Christian Europe face-to-face with the fact that the sun - not the earthly home of God’s creature, man - stood at the center of the universe. Averroes, the philosopher-judge from Muslim Spain, explained classical philosophy to the West and first introduced it to rationalist thought. Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine remained a standard European text into the 1600s. Arab books on optics, chemistry, and geography were equally long-lived.

The West’s willful forgetting of the Arab legacy began centuries ago, as anti-Muslim propaganda crafted in the shadow of the Crusades began to obscure any recognition of Arab culture’s profound role in the development of modern science. This message comprised four central themes, a number of which still resonate today: Islam distorts the word of God; it is spread solely by violence; it perverts human sexuality, either by encouraging the practice of polygamy, as in the famed harems of the sultans, or through repressive or excessively prudish attitudes; and its prophet, Muhammad, was a charlatan, a tool of the Devil, or even the Antichrist.

The thireenth-century philosopher Roger Bacon, one of the earliest Western proponents of the scientific method, praised the Muslims for their intellectual innovations, a subject he knew well: “Philosophy is drawn from the Muslims.” Yet the same Roger Bacon was just as enthusiastic in denouncing aspects of Muslim life of which he had no real knowledge or experience: The Arabs, he asserted confidently, “are absorbed in sensual pleasures because of their polygamy.” Soon such fanciful notions completely displaced all others in the popular imagination.’

--Form the Prologue to The House of Wisdom, by Jonathan Lyons

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