Reinventing Islam's Golden Age? (updated)

When we look at how the media writes about religion, we focus on news stories. But that's only one of the ways the mainstream media discuss religion, of course. Even apart from the op-ed page -- which we tend to stay away from unless there's some breaking news there -- there are photos, graphs, art reviews, advice columns and so on. Last week, the New York Times reviewed "1001 Inventions," which highlights Muslim contributions to science. It's currently at the New York Hall of Science and will be traveling to Los Angeles and Washington. Edward Rothstein wrote a fascinating review that ended up being one of the most judicial discussions of Islam that I've seen in that paper. The exhibit is designed to show that the Western Dark Ages were a Golden Age in Islam. He writes that the exhibit has serious problems but that this has had no effect on its international acclaim, having had wildly successful showings in British Cities before being expanded to its current form at the London Science Museum

The review includes many technical details and praises various aspects of the exhibition. But, the reviewer writes, the perspective of the exhibit has some serious flaws. Billed as a nonreligious and nonpolitical project, the reviewer notes that it was created by the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilization in London, whose goal is "to popularize, spread and promote an accurate account of Muslim Heritage and its contribution." The show aims to "instill confidence" and provide positive "role models" for young Muslims, and is part of a global education initiative complete with classroom materials:

The promotional goal is evident in every display. The repeated suggestion is that Muslim scientists made discoveries later attributed to Westerners and that many Western institutions were shaped by Muslim contributions.

The exhibition, though, wildly overdoes it. First, it creates a straw man, reviving the notion, now defunct, of the Dark Ages. Then it overstates the neglect of Muslim science, which has, to the contrary, long been cited in Western scholarship. It also expands the Golden Age of Islam to a millennium, though the bright years were once associated with just portions of the Abbasid Caliphate, which itself lasted for about 500 years, from the eighth century to 1258. The show's inflated ambitions make it difficult to separate error from exaggeration, and implication from fact.

He gives multiple examples. For instance, it conflates English medic William Harvey's discovery of how blood circulates with physician Ibn al-Nafis' figuring out the role of the heart and lungs in blood flow. While it's true that al-Nafi's 13th-century work fell into oblivion until 1924, Harvey's 17th-century work was more complete, explaining the entire circulatory system. A few others:

Sometimes Muslim precedence is suggested with even vaguer assertions. We read that Ibn Sina, in the 11th century, speculated about geological formations, "ideas that were developed, perhaps independently, by geologist James Hutton in the 18th century." Why "perhaps independently"? Is there any evidence of influence? Are the analyses comparable? How? Nothing is clear other than a vague sense of wrongful neglect.

Some assertions go well beyond the evidence. Hovering above the show is a glider grasped by a ninth-century inventor from Cordoba, Abbas ibn Firnas, "the first person to have actually tried" to fly. But that notion is based on a source that relied on ibn Firnas's mention in a ninth-century poem. It also ignores the historian Joseph Needham's description of Chinese attempts as early as the first century. The model of the flying machine is pure speculation.

And some claims are simply incorrect: catgut was used in surgical sutures by Galen in the second century, long before al-Zahrawi (named here as its pioneer).

The review, at this point, gets even tougher. Another critique is how religious affiliation is weighted more heavily than anything else. So Christian Arabs go unheralded while Chinese Muslims with virtually no connection to the "Golden Age" are celebrated. And the exhibit doesn't address whether Islam itself had anything to do with scientific inquiry or the transmission and expansion of scientific knowledge. How the "Golden Age" of discovery ended is left unaddressed, except for a hint of widespread external injustice. The reviewer says this approach isn't just faulty but unnecessary and that a straightforward, curatorial approach to scientific achievements during the Abbasid Caliphate would be remarkable. So why was it done?:

Perhaps because one tendency in the West, particularly after 9/11, has been to answer Muslim accusations of injustice (and even real attacks) with an exaggerated declaration of regard. It is guiltily offered as if in embarrassed compensation, inspired by a desire not to appear to tar Islam with the fervent claims made by its most violent adherents.

He writes that science museums have shared that impulse, noting an Imax film about science's future in Saudi Arabia that's being shown at Boston Museum of Science and New Jersey's Liberty Science Center exhibit about Muslim inventions. The reviewer ends with a suggestion that American students might need to learn a systematic historical survey of the West's great ideas and inventions in contemporary science museums. And, he suggests, Riyadh or Tehran might be overdue for a museum exhibit on Western science.

But it was that last excerpted paragraph that stuck with me throughout the week. I don't know what the reviewer meant by "the West" but are the media included in his indictment? Do media outlets tout the positive in Islam and minimize the negative? Does that explain some of the weaknesses in coverage of Islam?

UPDATE: Readers may also be interested in the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilization's response to the review.

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