‘Islamic discoveries’ and Columbus

Published in The Jerusalem Post on November 16, 2014

“Latin America’s contact with Islam dates back to 12th century. Muslims discovered America in 1178, not Christopher Columbus. Muslim sailors arrived in America 1178. Christopher Columbus mentions the existence of a mosque on a hill along the Cuba coast… Islam had expanded in the American continent even before Columbus arrived,” declared Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the closing ceremony of Latin-American Muslim leaders’ submit in Istanbul on November 15.

Erdogan’s invented, moronic and ignorance- laced story is representative of a variety of exaggerated teaching about Islamic “discoveries.” Indeed, one can imagine a leader of Malaysia or Oman one day boasting of Islamic astronauts making the first landing on the moon. After all, why do anything when you can simply claim to have done it?

This is the approach of a whole industry of ignorance that pervades the education systems in Islamic countries and increasingly encourages ignorance among some dutiful Muslims in the West – who think they are being patriotic or dignified by embracing claims like that spewed by Erdogan. Did any of the “leaders” present at the dinner reproach Erdogan for his nonsense? To the contrary, it’s likely most felt proud that “we discovered America, not those Catholics. We’re better – I knew it.”

In September 2012 The New York Times deftly reported that “Hundreds of works of art from infinitely diverse cultures lumped together under the banner of Islam went on view Wednesday in the newly opened Islamic art wing at the Musée du Louvre.” The galleries for “Islamic art” at the Louvre were part of a $125 million project that opened that year, partly funded by such open-minded and progressive sponsors as Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia, and the governments of Oman, Morocco and Kuwait. The Times’ critical reception of the galleries was correct; had all “Buddhist art” from around the world been lumped together like this under any other banner, the curator would have been laughed at.

The “Islamic art” hodge-podge is connected to the Erdogan propaganda by an interesting thread. It is part of the soft-sell to the West of “Islamic” accomplishments – some real, such as Algebra, some exaggerated, such as coffee and alcohol, and some invented. Vases produced in India and Bosnia, calligraphy from Morocco and Tashkent, a rug from Azerbaijan and another from Sudan; all this is part of the glory of “Islamic art.”

Can you imagine if one were to set the same standard for “Christian art”? Start at Faberge eggs, throw in some Georgia O’Keeffe and then an ancient tombstone from a church on the Faroe Islands, and a sword from reign of Charles the Fat. It’s all “Christian,” no? How did calligraphy from the 18th century Dodecanese get placed on par with the Mona Lisa, anyway? And how are architecture and vases from India and the Middle East, much of it influenced by diverse non-Muslim cultures, all simply folded into the “Islamic world”? Similar to the way that Columbus was: a quietly spoken exaggeration, told loud enough that it became true.

Let’s examine a few other examples of this paradigm. A fervent Islamophile of the Muslims- invented-everything mindset claimed in a 2013 article at The Huffington Post called “How Islam made the West Cool”:

“Islam is not alien to Western civilization but an integral part of it. In fact, Islam and the Muslim influence are deeply woven into the West’s social and civilizational fabric.”

He claims that one 8th-century Iraqi-born Abul Hassan Ali Ibn Nafie, who went by the name Ziryab, came up with the “earth-shattering innovation” of submitting “fashion to the cycle of the seasons.” He concludes: “remember that Muslims have had a cool, and not just a chilling, in fluence on Western society.” This is like taking Calvin Klien and Ralph Lauren and concluding “Christians have influenced Islamic society” because, after all, some people in the Muslim world wear styles by them.

What happens is every time a person who happens to be Muslim has accomplished something in world history, it becomes an “Islamic” accomplishment. Oddly, however, Copernicus’s discoveries, Alan Turing’s, Robert Goddard’s, or Jonas Salk’s, are not “Christian accomplishments.”

The theory of Islamic contribution is predicated on the notion of the Islamic “Golden Age” from the 7th to 13th centuries when, textbooks tell us, “the Islamic world contributed to agriculture, the arts, economics, industry, law, literature, navigation, philosophy, sociology and technology.” Medical journal peer-review was invented by none other than Syrian Ishaq bin Ali al-Rahwi, and Jabbir Ibn Hayan was a pioneer in chemistry.

Note here how again, the accomplishments of some brilliant sheikhs and sultans in Baghdad and Spain are all subsumed into the “Islamic world.” In an article called “The Glory that was Baghdad,” Alex Markels claims “in what was, perhaps, history’s first international scientific endeavor, scholars were sent out to gather the texts of the ancient Greeks, Persians and Hindus, wresting them from oblivion and translating them into Arabic.”

He notes: “Muslim society’s most important contribution to human knowledge came in mathematical disciplines, such as algebra, trigonometry, and logarithms.” Islamic civilization even invented “the world’s first international banking system.” Other authors have gone further, claiming the Islamic decision to use paper, which they had taken from the Chinese, led to an “explosion of book printing” and “democratization of knowledge.”

It wouldn’t be so preposterous if the degree to which this narrative is perpetuated wasn’t so extraordinary. The Museum of the History of Science in Oxford has a pamphlet for teachers to help them explain the greatness of Islamic science called “Science and technology in medieval Islam.” The pamphlet claims: “Seeking knowledge about the natural world was seen as the duty of every Muslim” because one Hadith says, “the scholar’s ink is holier than the martyr’s blood.” The text notes, “Islamic theory of numbers was influenced by the Greek mathematician, Pythagoras.”

Interestingly, Pathagoras is not given credit as a “pagan mathematician”; while every influential Muslim mathematician from India to Spain is credited first as a “Muslim” as if the central importance of their existence was to glorify Islamic civilization, rather than the other way around.

Years ago I attended a lecture by Ali Salem, the Egyptian writer. He joked that there was a well-known rumor that Shakespeare was an Arabic author named Shaykh al-Zubayr.

The thing is, it is easier to simply re-define Shakespeare as a Muslim or claim that he borrowed his ideas from “Islamic philosophers” than to ask why there is such a dearth of published books today in the Muslim intellectual capitals of old: Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo. It’s easier to claim Muslims invented fashion than to wonder why a belly-dancing show was banned from TV in Cairo and why the few fashion designers there are in the Middle East are concentrated in Beirut – mostly due to its Christian legacy of openness. How’s the fashion industry going in “Persia,” where once were philosophers and scientists?

If someone told you that a religion, over its 1,300 year history, had, in widely scattered locations, experienced a century or so of renaissance in scientific pursuits, would you ascribe it all to the faith? After all, that’s why we call it the “Italian Renaissance,” and not the Christian renaissance. It’s why we have “Dutch Masters,” and not just Christian painters. It’s why the Americans made the lunar landing, not “Protestants contributing to space exploration.”

The truth about innovations in Islamic societies is that they were rare. There was a golden age of Baghdad and Spain, mind you, but hardly the liberal progressive era it is imagined to have been; like the period of the Italian Renaissance, these golden ages were also built on slavery and oppression.

By burnishing the credentials of fake “Islamic discoveries” and exaggerating others, today’s Muslim students are not being encouraged to make new discoveries, but to rest on imagined laurels. It’s not a surprise Erdogan wants to build a mosque in Cuba atop his imagined Muslim mosque from Columbus’ time. He doesn’t want to build a university, medical lab, or a school of philosophy. New York University builds campuses in Abu Dhabi to teach humanities and science, while Saudis fund Islamic studies departments at Harvard and Georgetown.

For too long Christian history has been taught as Crusades, Inquisitions, book burnings and Salem witch trials, and Islamic history has been taught as accomplishments in philosophy, architecture and pre-Columbian navigation. For the sake of the West, and for the sake of Islamic societies, to continue pioneering innovation, a little historical corrective honesty is in order. Let’s start with this: A Muslim navigator did not “discover” America in 1178.

There were already Native Americans there – they “discovered” it.

Follow the author @Sfrantzman.

** Update***

Erdogan has now gone further and made offensive statements against women:

“You cannot put women and men on an equal footing,” Erdogan said. “It is against nature. They were created differently. Their nature is different. … Our religion has defined a position for women: motherhood. Some people can understand this, while others can’t….What’s needed isn’t equality between the sexes, but “equality among women and equality among men.”

Bulent Arinc, another politician said: “Women shouldn’t laugh in public,” he said. “We must uphold our moral values.” In response, he was deluged with photos of laughing women on Twitter.


One response to “‘Islamic discoveries’ and Columbus

  1. Seth, there’s a very good reason why Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren (born Ralph Lifshitz) are not taken as evidence that “Christians have influenced Islamic society”, nor Jonas Salk as an example of “Christian accomplishments”…

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