The Past, The Present and The Future

You may have heard it many times: the Renaissance was fuelled by the preservation, translation and development of Greek, Indian, Persian (plus more) intellectual property by Muslims.

Well as Muslims we’ve heard it, definitely. We’ve heard it and felt the wave of pride pass over us acknowledging the robust traditions of reason, rationalism, intellectual rigor, observation and experimentation that Muslim scientists, thinkers, philosophers, travellers, writers etc… engaged in during what has been dubbed ‘The Golden Age’ of Islamic Civilisation. The same period was ironically ‘The Dark Ages’ in the West.

We smell and taste the adventure and lust for learning that included:

-Translations of Greek texts by Plato, Ptolemy, Galen, Hippocrates, Aristotle and Euclid amongst others,

-The development of the number system learnt from the Indians,

-The manufacture of paper learnt from the Chinese.

All this cemented to form a springboard for further enquiry, research and new developments in such an exciting way.

However, I have two questions. Did we ever really understand the contributions of that era to Western development and the making of who we are today? Are the names and contributions of key players known and spoken of with the reverence they deserve?

Secondly, should this learning not be part of the mainstream curriculum, understood by generations of students as we solve the puzzle of who we are, how we relate to one another and how we forge our shared futures together. At a time when our communities seem to be so polarised and fragmented, would an understanding of how we built upon the legacies of one another; taking knowledge, translating it, understanding it, moulding it, constructing upon it and passing it on not be a balm to the angst and an antidote to arrogant dismissiveness? I suppose I should invert the question and ask why ever is this knowledge not a compulsory part of our school syllabi?

Having read “The House of Wisdom” by Jonathon Lyons, it reinforced my belief that there are key facts that we should all know and names we should all be familiar with. If we know the names of Thomas Edison and Isaac Newton, then so too should we know and say the names of Al- Khwarizmi, Ibn Sina and Ibn al-Haytham amongst so many others. It seems bizarre that a whole epoch, its innovations and intellectual capital have been erased from our collective conscience. Texts that fed the Renaissance such as Arabic translations of the works of Aristotle, were accepted in the West with great excitement and zeal, yet the conveyors, preservers, translators and innovators were erased.

Locally, we speak to primary and secondary schools regularly, reinforcing the syllabus and discussing issues relating to cohesion, respect and identity. We get a chance to fill in the gaps. We ensure we mention Ibn Sina, Al-Idrisi, al-Biruni amongst others. Equally we highlight that over 500 words in the English lexicon are from Arabic such as alchemy, algebra, coffee, elixir, sofa and so on. We get a short sharp chance to redress this gaping void of an omission but that is all- this one chance.

It’s important that we recognise one another’s contributions. Like a relay race, it seems our histories connected by the use of batons that were passed amongst civilisations. Each time the baton changed hands a new opportunity arose to polish it and develop it further before passing it on. And like a relay race, once the baton crosses the finish line, every hand that carried it played a role in the racers’ success. Surely to honour each carrier would on the one hand, tackle wilful neglect and on the other hand combat arrogance? Surely in the end, each hand should be acknowledged because that is only fair and right?

This was the topic at our latest ISB campus residential

Here are some fascinating facts; ones that we need to repeat and repeat till blue in the face if only to grant people, their endeavours and their achievements their dues.

Let’s start with Al-Khwarizmi, an eminent astronomer and mathematician. A Hindu delegation invited to the Abbasid court in 771 brought with them prized Sanskrit texts which included mathematical knowledge of the sine function. Al-Khwarizmi used this knowledge to refine the astrolabe and gave name to the science of algebra. A Latin translation of his work is the chief way Arabic numerals, as opposed to Roman numerals, were conveyed to Europe and led to the discovery of decimal fractions and the value of pi.

With the obligation for Muslims to pray facing the same direction, it became incumbent to determine direction. Al- Biruni excelled in mathematical geography and was the first to determine accurate geographical locales with the technique of spherical trigonometry.

Ibn Sina was a true polymath. His most well known contribution was his ‘Canon of Medicine’ completed in 1025 and used in western universities up to and throughout the 18th Century.

Then we have Mariam al-Asturlabiyy, the tenth century female astronomer who constructed Astrolabes- those mini computers used to tell the time, map the stars and sun and navigate by.

I find it strange that throughout my student years, I learnt only one sentence on this era and that was of Ibn Sina.

What intrigues me too, are the many who placed one foot on either side of the ‘divide’ during these politically charged times and sought to embrace the learning of the Muslims, honour it and transport it back to burgeoning European universities.

In 1138, one such Christian King of Sicily, Roger II commissioned al-Idrisi to draw a new world map to be etched onto large silver discs. He read Arabic and showed great care towards the religious minorities he ruled over. The map he commissioned was the finest work of cartography at the time.

Adelard of Bath was another such character, who travelled in search of the ‘Studia Arabum.’ He traversed through Pisa, a stop off point for Crusaders where bazaars were full of Arabic texts, on his way to immerse himself in Muslim lands believing that the knowledge found in the Arab East could help cure the ills of the West. Adopting flowing green robes and a green signet ring, Adelard was one of many who travelled and respectfully translated great works, including those of Euclid.

Holy Emperor Frederick II, grandson of King Roger II, mentioned earlier, was a learned Emperor twice excommunicated by the Popes for his suspect views and love for Muslim learning. He extended patronage to a Michael Scot who translated works by Aristotle and Ibn Sina. Amongst his protégés was Fibonacci of Pisa, the pre-eminent mathematician who translated and studied amongst Muslims and wrote treatises on geometry, equations and developed his famous Fibonacci sequence.

What fascinates me about this era centres on the topics of movement; of ideas, of peoples, of thoughts and of intellectual property. The Oxford and Cambridge Universities of the world stood firmly in Baghdad, Damascus and Andalusia. The movement of ideas and knowledge travelled from east to west. The baton kept moving and was polished and moulded by the hands of many as it circuited empires. As we talk of the movement of people and ideas today, we would do well to remember this time, if not to honour the contributions of those who we can so readily malign, then at least to comprehend how inter-connected we all really are. That nations rise and fall, that we give and we take, teaches us humility and respect and draws us back to the fundamental reality that our honour, dignity and rights flow from and through one another. Upon the shoulders of one another do we stand strong. Intolerance, hatred and bigotry attack our very core human essence, leaving none unscathed.

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