One Thousand Years of Missing History

The following essay aims to alert communities as to the particular significance of the Muslim civilisation and its historical role in contributing to the birth of modern civilisation. The author, Professor Salim Al-Hassani, a specialist of Muslim Heritage and a pioneer of its defense, focuses first on various instances of distorted history in scholarship, school curricula and media culture. He shows how unjustified is the suppression of centuries of history from history books and how the jump from Hellenistic times to Renaissance is rather the manifestation of ignorance and misconceptions. Presenting selected examples, he then proves that this suppressed period, belonging to the classical period of the history of Islam, and which lasted for about a millennium, knew a creative contribution to civilisation by men and women of different faiths. Those knowledge, science and art creators built on ancient knowledge and were the drive of one of the richest periods of history in terms of science, culture, technology and art.

Professor Salim T S Al-Hassani*

1. Illuminating words

In a memorable lecture on "Islam and the West" presented on 27th October 1993 in Oxford, HRH Prince Charles of Wales said the following decisive sentences:

"If there is much misunderstanding in the West about the nature of Islam, there is also much ignorance about the debt our own culture and civilisation owe to the Islamic world. It is a failure, which stems, I think, from the straight-jacket of history, which we have inherited. The medieval Islamic world, from central Asia to the shores of the Atlantic, was a world where scholars and men of learning flourished. But because we have tended to see Islam as the enemy of the West, as an alien culture, society, and system of belief, we have tended to ignore or erase its great relevance to our own history [1]."

There are many instances of distorted history, and many works have given attention to this matter [2]. In this presentation focus will be on the other manner by which history is distorted: that is, the suppression of centuries of contribution to modern civilisation by the Muslim world. This negligence is apparent in academia, in the media and in the educational curriculum and associated history books, especially those aimed at the general public. The focus on this issue is to alert communities as to the particular significance of the Muslim civilisation and its historical role in giving birth to much of modern science and technology.

The following words by a famous lady well describes this situation and the debt that world history owes to the civilisation created by Muslims. They were pronounced by Mrs. Carleton S. Fiorina, chairman, president, and CEO of Hewlett-Packard Company (1999-2005) in a discourse on 29 September 2003:

"There was once a civilization that was the greatest in the world. It was able to create a continental super-state that stretched from ocean to ocean, and from northern climes to tropics and deserts. Within its dominion lived hundreds of millions of people, of different creeds and ethnic origins.

One of its languages became the universal language of much of the world, the bridge between the peoples of a hundred lands. Its armies were made up of people of many nationalities, and its military protection allowed a degree of peace and prosperity that had never been known. The reach of this civilization's commerce extended from Latin America to China, and everywhere in between.

And this civilization was driven more than anything, by invention. Its architects designed buildings that defied gravity. Its mathematicians created the algebra and algorithms that would enable the building of computers, and the creation of encryption. Its doctors examined the human body, and found new cures for disease. Its astronomers looked into the heavens, named the stars, and paved the way for space travel and exploration. Its writers created thousands of stories. Stories of courage, romance and magic. Its poets wrote of love, when others before them were too steeped in fear to think of such things.

When other nations were afraid of ideas, this civilization thrived on them, and kept them alive.

When censors threatened to wipe out knowledge from past civilizations, this civilization kept the knowledge alive, and passed it on to others. While modern Western civilization shares many of these traits, the civilization I'm talking about was the Islamic world from the year 800 to 1600, which included the Ottoman Empire and the courts of Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo, and enlightened rulers like Suleiman the Magnificent.

Although we are often unaware of our indebtedness to this other civilization, its gifts are very much a part of our heritage. The technology industry would not exist without the contributions of Arab mathematicians. Sufi poet-philosophers like Rumi challenged our notions of self and truth. Leaders like Suleiman contributed to our notions of tolerance and civic leadership. And perhaps we can learn a lesson from his example:

It was leadership based on meritocracy, not inheritance. It was leadership that harnessed the full capabilities of a very diverse population–that included Christianity, Islamic, and Jewish traditions. This kind of enlightened leadership — leadership that nurtured culture, sustainability, diversity and courage — led to 800 years of invention and prosperity [3]."

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Ayah of the week

Say, ‘What counts most as a witness?’ Say,
‘God is witness between you and me. This Qur an was revealed for
me to warn you [people] and everyone it reaches. Do you really bear
witness that there are other gods beside God?’ Say, ‘I myself do not
bear witness [to any such thing].’ Say, ‘He is only one God, and I
disown whatever you join with Him.’

/ 6:19 /