Islamic Science Rediscovered (But kept hidden from main media)

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Islamic Science Rediscovered (But kept hidden from main media)

Aref Assaf

Instead of taking my kids to a sportsplex or some other Eid carnival celebration, I decided this year to spend the entire day at, yes, a science exhibition hall.

Recalling a proud and a majestic period of Arab and Islamic civilizations,  one is thoroughly and glowingly immersed in a  golden time when our ancestors reigned supreme in the sciences.

Thanks to a global effort, a massive exhibit was recently opened in New Jersey, housing hundreds of inventions, tools and artifacts which masterfully tell the story of Islam through the prism of scientific advances, much of which is the basis of contemporary inventions, thought processes, and scientific ideas.

It is widely stated in the story of Marco d’Aviano, a 17th-century monk from the Capuchin order, whose brown robes gave us the name for the cappuccinos now quaffed on every street corner. The coffee itself, though, is all down to an Arab herdsman called Khalid, who lived far earlier (in the ninth century). He noticed that his goats seemed to have a new lease on life after they had grazed on a particular wild coffee berry, which grew in his native Ethiopia. Khalid – possibly feeling a little tired after tending to his wandering goats – decided to try the berries for himself by boiling them. The resulting liquid was known as al-qahwa. As the drink traversed through the centuries on the coattails of trade and travel, the first European coffee house opened in Venice in 1645.

The account of Khalid’s discovery is just one of a glittering treasury of untold tales from a golden age of discovery and innovation, which took place in the Islamic world between the seventh and 17th centuries. From fountain pens, the camera, surgical instruments and even the Rubik’s Cube, you will learn how the Muslims influenced their creation.

It is this hidden history that a new exhibition aims to unveil. Entitled “Islamic Science Rediscovered”, the exhibition opened recently at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, NJ. The exhibit, which covers nine years of scientific inventions, charts the innovations of exceptional scholars, and ordinary people from the Islamic world who discovered and developed many items that are taken for granted today. Unlike most scientific shows, this exhibit is all about touch and feel. the visitors is enticed to smell Eastern spices. listen to Arabic music, simulate a flight pattern, use an astrolabe, turn a water raising wheel or even follow detailed instructions to performing a cesarean section.

Curiously, little media fanfare has been forthcoming. Except for a short article in the New York Times, no New Jersey papers covered the exhibit as of this writing. Paradoxically, many blogs have blamed the exhibit organizers for “appeasing’ and “cowering to” the Muslims. Some bloggers even questioned the timing and the financing of the show in an attempt to scare potential visitors and to dissuade other interested museums from hosting it.

While most Westerns are taught that science and technology withered during the “Dark Ages”, this Islamic exhibit aims, through a process of education and learning, to challenge this myth and celebrate the fact that Muslim civilization was flourishing and contributed to the advancement of our society today.

A remarkable example of such contribution was in the field of astronomy, propelled to a large extent by Muslims’ desire to ascertain the lunar calendar, the direction of Mecca for prayer and of course for their trade. From astronomical instruments to observatories, Muslim scholars brought a breathtaking amount to the science of the stars and laid the foundation for the renaissance astronomy of the west. Copernicus, for example, reportedly used the astronomical treatise of Muslim astronomer Al-Battani, whose body of work included star catalogs and planetary tables. Al-Battani also popularized trigonometry. He lived in the ninth century and, from that time onwards, Muslim stargazers undertook a wealth of work.

The tenth-century Persian astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi cast his eyes upwards to the awning of stars overhead and was the first to record a galaxy outside our own. Gazing at the Andromeda galaxy he called it a “little cloud” – an apt description of the slightly wispy appearance of our galactic neighbor.

The Muslim world, ahead of its time, also had knowledge of the Earth. Twelfth-century geographer Al-Idrisi, a European Muslim, produced an atlas comprising 70 maps. The atlas, known as the Book of Roger, showed the Earth as being round. The idea that the Earth was spherical was common among Muslim scholars.

The progress made in places like the great observatory in Samarkand, in modern-day Uzbekistan, laid the foundations for the science we take for granted today. And being challenged on how science and faith can co-exist and interact is one of the most stimulating things I’ve done – it makes you aware of misconceptions that exist across communities.

Many stars have Arabic names – from Aldeberan (one of the brightest stars in the night sky), to the stars of the Summer Triangle (Altair, Deneb, and Vega).

Stars aside, the lexicon of science is peppered with Arabic words, each with a story to tell about its Islamic heritage. The Arabic word for chemistry is alkimia: the word became alchemy in the west but its original meaning was chemistry.

Jabir ibn Hayyan, who lived in Persia in the eighth century, is widely regarded as the founder of chemistry. Jabir worked tirelessly in his laboratory, reportedly saying: “The first essential in chemistry is that you should perform practical work and conduct experiments”.   He invented many of the basic processes and equipment still used by chemists today such as distillation. For us in the 21st Century,  this may seem a simple sentiment to today’s scientists but, more than 1,200 years ago, it was on the cutting edge. Jabir’s rigorous approach to experimentation led to the discovery of powerful acids, which are now key to the chemical industry.

As you may enjoy reading this piece over your cup of coffee, then you may be surprised to learn you owe this civilized daily ritual to a herd of curious goats.

There is so much that we take for granted that has come from the Muslim world. For example, we write with Roman letters but use Arabic numerals so the influence extends to something as basic as 1,2,3- and let us not forget the invention of the Zero, known in Arabic as Sifr.

Muslim civilization was not about rewriting history but was more about finding a long-missing piece of the life’s puzzles. It’s like uncovering some unread chapters of the world’s most interesting book. Now you may understand why I wanted my kids to spend the Eid day at a science hall.

Recommended reading:

Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers, and Artists (Hardcover)

The New York Times referred to the huge exhibit in a rather inattentive and demeaning manner. Here is a link to the article. In a follow-up article, the Times was more generous with its accolades. See this article.

The Bergen Record  did not cover the exhibit but did mention it as part of the story on the reopening of the Liberty Center.

The Star Ledger, NJ largest daily, included the following in a article about he reopening of the centre after two year renovation project was completed this Summer: “History and science will come together in a traveling exhibit, “Islamic Science rediscovered,” which will trace the development of science from the 7th to the 15th century in an empire that spanned half the globe, from China to Spain. Visitors will learn about early achievements in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, navigation and more.”

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