BOOK REVIEW:  Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers and Artists

Review Essay: Clarifying the Muslim Role in Western Civilization

by David Shasha

Michael Hamilton Morgan, Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers and Artists, National Geographic Books, 2007

Beginning in the 19th century, European civilization not only surpassed the world of the Middle East in military and technological terms, but began to revisit the way that the history of its own cultural development took place.  Over the course of the first post-Roman centuries, Europe had progressively lost the massive knowledge base that had been built during the hegemony of Greek and Latin thinkers and scientists.  The loss of this knowledge was a gradual development that was caused by a combination of a Christian indifference to the material world and the debilitating invasions of barbarian tribes into what was once the mighty Roman Empire.

At the very time that Europe was descending into what has been called its “Dark Ages,” a new upstart civilization was growing in the Arab world.  The emergence of Islamic culture at the very time that Roman civilization was being eviscerated by Christians and barbarians drew not only from the ethical and ritual traditions of the older monotheistic faiths to which the religion felt a keen allegiance, but as the political and military scope of the Muslim conquests grew, Islam began to adopt and adapt the Greco-Roman culture in new and often challenging ways.

Islam was not simply a religion; it was a political system, a philosophical system, a scientific system and much else.  As Islam developed, it challenged those who lived in the Middle East and other areas that were conquered in the first centuries of Muslim warfare to raise their own levels of cognition and intellectual acumen.  In the case of Jewish civilization, a classical rabbinic culture as enshrined in the Mishnah, Talmud and Midrashic literatures began to speculate on new and different subjects and to rethink assumptions that were held dear in past generations.

This Jewish rereading of its classical literary heritage was first articulated in the voluminous writings of Se’adya Ga’on (882-942) and came to formal perfection in the encyclopedic studies of Moses Maimonides (1135-1204).  The template created by these Arab Jewish rabbis was one that was to form the basis of the Sephardic Jewish tradition throughout the ages.

It was the learning of the Arab Muslims that brought about this massive paradigm shift in world civilization.

Going back to the 19th century, we see the emergence of a base European xenophobia that sought to co-opt the gains of the past that had been transmitted in places like Toledo, Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus, Isfahan and Samarkand and generate a myth of European Renaissance and Enlightenment oblivious to the way in which it had inherited the riches of what the historian Marshall Hodgson has termed the “Islamicate” civilization.  This myth was propounded in the context of a European imperialism that, along the lines of the thought of German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, saw national cultures as discrete markers of a cultural spirit that in the case of Western Europe drew from a Greco-Roman inheritance.

How this inheritance came to take shape was never really questioned.  The many Arabic loan-words and cultural borrowings were left unexamined.  And not only this – Europe was itself embarking on an imperial enterprise that would bring countries like France, England and Russia into conflict with the Eastern world of the Ottoman Empire and Indian civilization.

In his seminal work Orientalism the scholar Edward Said clearly and rationally explained the ways in which the Western denial of linear history took shape.  Drawing from their imperial consciousness, the Europeans not only suppressed knowledge of the Arab role in Western civilization, but found time to demonize the Arabs in a way that caricatured their history, customs and culture.

In the wake of Said’s pioneering work there has been a good deal of discussion over the ways in which Orientalism functions in our culture.  In spite of excellent work done by historians such as Albert Hourani and Philip Hitti, a school of Orientalists led by Bernard Lewis have attempted to ensnare the Arab civilization and show it as corrupt, despotic and ignorant.  Such a scholarship has proven to be immensely influential not only in the world of Jewish studies and Zionist polemics, but also in the general culture of Western intellectuals. 

Contemporary popular studies of Arab-Muslim civilization have been few and far between.  With the publication of Maria Rosa Menocal’s The Ornament of the World in 2002, Richard Rubenstein’s Aristotle’s Children in 2003, and Chris Lowney’s A Vanished World in 2005, the Anglophone reader has recently been treated to a rare glimpse into the complex polyglot world of Medieval Islamicate culture; a world that had sadly been marked as subversive in the works of Bernard Lewis and in the complementary studies of like-minded writers such as Daniel Pipes, Norman Stillman, Bat Ye’or and Robert Spencer. 

The struggle over the meaning of Arab civilization has become a central issue for Sephardic Jews.  Over the course of many centuries Sephardim have had to withstand the constant attacks of their Ashkenazi brethren who have created an endless number of impediments preventing the complete integration of the Arabo-Islamic culture into Jewish tradition.  From the moment of the anathema written prohibiting the study of Maimonides’ scientific and philosophical works in 13th century Spain – the result of the pressure imported into Iberia through the German and French rabbis of the school of the Tosafot and Rashi – this battle has been a central part of Sephardi life.

By the 19th century a number of trends had developed that made this conflict even more pronounced.  With the emergence of a new class of Jewish scholars known in Hebrew as “Maskilim,” in English “Enlightened,” models of pluralist culture were sought after and much prized.  At the same time there was an ever-dangerous Orthodox reaction to the liberal ideas of Ashkenazi reformers.  All of this was taking place in the larger context of European colonialism and imperial conquest.

Sephardim were caught within the complex forces that had caused a massive collapse in the Middle Eastern world.  The progressive deterioration of this society had brought with it a fierce set of attacks on the old Judeo-Arab world of science, philosophy and poetry that had once marked its genius.  Western Jews began to see the Middle East – its Jews included – as backward and primitive.  Such a thing could only be possible in the wake of a suppression of history.  In point of fact, Westerners came to the Middle East and insisted that its land and its populations were invisible from a cultural point of view.  It must not be forgotten that Zionism was born in this Eurocentric cauldron.  The many centuries of cultural progress that had marked the Arab world were washed away at almost a moment’s notice.

With the publication of Michael Hamilton Morgan’s important new study Lost History this cultural confusion is taken into account.  Working from the seminal model of the Arab-Muslim genius, Morgan recounts the details of a history that has been obscured in the wake of inter-cultural hatreds and political competition.  In his words:

Most of us are unaware of the details of Muslim history because of language difficulties, the passage of many centuries, a blur of unfamiliar names, places, and events, a triumphalist Eurocentric narrative of the Renaissance and later advances, orthodox Muslim excision of unorthodox Muslim thinkers, and the burning of books and the destruction of libraries. (pp. xv-xvi)

In the midst of much political controversy and the purported “clash of civilizations” that has been mooted by scholars with a profoundly debilitating view of the West and the Muslim world, Morgan has chosen to do something so simple that it is a wonder that it has not been done more often by others: to present the historical record of Arab-Muslim scientific achievement and the substantial way that it has made us what we are today.

In a Jewish world that has rejected the place of the Arabo-Sephardim and instituted a form of cultural imperialism that reflects a purely Ashkenazi orientation, we find this history completely absent from the pedagogical agenda. 

While veneration for a figure like Maimonides is repeated ad nauseum like some kind of demonic mantra by those who not only reject his ideas and culture but who actively prevent its study by attacking its intellectual premises, children in Hebrew schools – Sephardi and Ashkenazi alike – are not presented with this brilliant history.  Having imbibed the values of an Ashkenazi-Zionist worldview, a place where Arabs have been marked as the debased Other, contemporary Jewish culture has been at the very forefront of deflecting us from a simple and rational understanding of this history.  In fact, when we look at the Sephardic institutions that currently exist – Synagogues, Yeshivas and other cultural entities – we see Ashkenazim in charge; even when a Sephardi leads a Sephardic institution they have generally been trained in the ideological mindset of the Ashkenazim and tend to reject Sephardic culture.

So what is it that the world of the Arab East presents to us?

As Morgan expertly lays it out, the Arab world entered the world of European civilization as military victors and rapidly expanded their presence in this world not simply as conquerors or colonists, but as assimilators of the culture of the past.  In a succinct description of the early Muslim philosophers known as the Mutazilites, Morgan states:

The Mutazilites, with the caliph as their patron and champion, believe that reason is the key to wisdom and God.  This is the result both of indigenous strands of Islamic thought, as well as elements of Greek philosophy.  Greek-Hellenic knowledge comes into ninth-century Islam from three sources: The Persian aristocracy who play an important role as administrators in the Abbasid period; Christian physicians and theologians, who pursue Greek logic; and the pagan Sabians of Harran in northern Iraq, an ancient Semitic group whose astral religion connects them to Hellenistic astrology, astronomy, and Hermeticism.  (pp. 51-52)

We clearly see here the strategies that the Arab-Muslims used to generate the new learning: with an ecumenical religion that sought to maintain cultural pluralism rather than monolingualism the Arabs developed a strategy that permitted other religions and ethnic groups to maintain their own autonomy under Arab rule.  This cultural pluralism permitted the other religious communities to partake in and contribute to the new culture. 

The Arabs were open minded enough to understand the crucial need for such contributions.  In essence, the new culture was an advanced form of cultural syncretism which led to an intensely dynamic and fruitful symbiosis.

One of the first places where this symbiosis took place was Baghdad:

With the House of Wisdom in the ninth and tenth centuries, Abbasid Baghdad will reach the pinnacle of its intellectual influence, filling out the dream of al-Mansur and Haroun al-Rashid to make it the true center of the world in every way.  Out of his predawn dream and love of intellect, al-Mamum will also lay the foundation for other discoveries.  On the plains of Iraq will rise not one but two stellar observatories, challenging his astronomers not only to read the hidden message of space but to better map and document it.  For his astronomical support, the world will later name one of the craters of the moon for him, al-Mamun.  (p. 57)

Over the course of this brilliantly written book Morgan recounts the names and deeds of many Arab figures whose names are now unknown in the West.  There is al-Khwarizmi who will establish the foundations of modern mathematics:

Until about the 16th century, 700 years after his death, the Europeans will honor and dignify everything they postulate with the concluding footnote, “dixit algorithmi,” or “so says al-Khwarizmi,” meaning that they have built their own calculations on faith in the teachings of the Persian.  His translated works will be the core university textbooks in Europe and the Muslim world.  (p. 91)

The very word “algorithm” that we use in our mathematics is an Anglicization of the name of this Persian Muslim who laid the foundations of this knowledge.  Though most, if not all, who use the term have no idea where it comes from, Morgan is at pains to reconstruct the way in which such scholars set the table for our way of seeing and doing things.

An equally important figure in science is Ibn al-Haytham whose investigations into optics also presage the breakthroughs of the modern period:

Ibn al-Haytham tries to figure out the mechanics of human binocular vision.  He wonders why the sun and moon appear so much larger near the horizon than when they are high in the sky, and offers the correct explanations.  He obsesses on the mathematical implications of spherical and parabolic mirrors, and these issues take him on whole new flights of mathematical calculation.  He begins to understand the magnifying power of a lens, a critical discovery that will later help Galileo and Copernicus and Leeuwenhoek to find the stars and to find microbes.  (pp. 104-105)

Critical to the emergence of Islamic thinking was an understanding of the traditional premises which would permit critical ideas to emerge.  It was natural within the Islamic world that intellectualism be wedded to the values of faith and religion.  This foundational form of Religious Humanism did not simply emerge in Spain, but was sprouting throughout the Arab world with figures such as Omar Khayyam, the inventor Al-Jazari, and the Jewish doctor and philosopher Maimonides all contributing to the new sciences and learning. 

In the case of Maimonides who is seen as a purely religious figure among pious Jews, Morgan provides a more extended portrait:

Maimonides had done such a good job in those days that his fame had spread far and wide.  He had even gotten an offer of employment from the Christian warrior Richard the Lionhearted, which he had ignored.

Maimonides had written ten volumes on medicine, health, disease, and treatments.  He had written on everything from how Galen had been wrong, to describing strokes, seizures, liver disease, diabetes, sexual health, and hemorrhoids…

And the irony is that Maimonides will be remembered not so much for his vast medical wisdom, as for his writings as the greatest Jewish philosopher in medieval times and the spiritual godfather of Jews from Spain and the Middle East.  Those celebrating his memory will most often be Jews, when throughout his life he worked with and healed as many or more Muslims and Christians.  (pp. 210-211)

In the spirit of Arabic science and medicine, the crowning achievement of this period will come from perhaps the greatest thinker of all, Ibn Sina.  Ibn Sina composes what will become in effect the primary textbook of all medical knowledge for many centuries, a book simply called al-Qanun, the Canon of Medicine.

Ibn Sina’s method is accurately described by Morgan in the following passage:

Ibn Sina will set down empirical scientific rules for testing and rating the effectiveness of drugs in treating various conditions, rules that will be the backbone of clinical drug trials nine hundred years later.  Rather than take a substance on faith, he will say that the purity of the drug is important, that it must be universally effective, that the dose must be tied to the severity of the illness, and, finally, that it must be tested on humans under strictly observed and controlled conditions.  (p. 195)

Over the course of the Islamicate centuries, all that we now know about science was set on a solid foundation within world civilization.  The restoration of a critical method that was inherited from the ancient Greeks and Romans was adopted by the Arabs who established advanced schools of medicine, religion and science.  These schools preserved the old wisdom and developed new methods and strategies that continue to be with us today. 

It was in the key aspect of book translation that this precious knowledge found its way to Europe.  In the translation laboratories of Toledo and elsewhere in the Muslim world knowledge was made accessible to all who wanted it.  A fascinating glimpse of the culture of translation is presented in the following passage:

Abelard of Bath in England, sometimes called Adelard, joined the other translators.  He is rumored to have masqueraded as a Muslim in early 12th century Spain to get around the concern of at least one local Spanish Muslim ruler that Christian translators would be “stealing” the accumulated wisdom and knowledge of the Muslims, to appropriate the information and call it their own and to turn it against non-Christians.  Valid or not, Abelard takes the safe route.  While he translates numerous mathematical works of the Arabs and Greeks from Arabic, the Europeans will best remember him for getting his hands on Arabic translations of the great Euclid.

Other lesser-known translators include Plato of Tivoli, Hermann of Carinthia, Rudolf of Bruges, Michael Scot, Philip of Tripoli, William of Lunis, and in Spain, Dominicus Gondisalvi, and Hugh of Santalla.  Spanish Jewish translators of Arabic will include Petrus Alphonsi, Abraham ibn Ezra, John of Seville, and Savasorda.  Thus the Europeans will assimilate from their Muslim predecessors a rich, multicultural fusion of scientific thought.  Even purely Greek works are now understood through the lens of centuries of Islamic thought, cultivated in regions as diverse as Iraq, Spain, Iran, and Egypt.  (p. 217)

Lost History is essential reading for those trying to learn about the roots of Western civilization.  Michael Hamilton Morgan has written a luminous and lucid work of popular history whose literary structure helps the reader better understand the relation between past and present.  Structuring each chapter of the book around a creative interchange between a modern individual who has some hitherto unknown connection to the world of the Arab-Muslim intellectual past that is being so carefully surveyed, we see the hidden nooks and crannies of our contemporary world and the ways in which the older civilization is imbricated within it.  From people working for NASA to a Muslim professional in France to doctors in contemporary Spain, uncovering the surfaces of our lives we can quite easily find the Arabs who have laid the foundation for the way we think and live today.

Of course, there is little question that in our world the rightful image of Arabs and Muslims has been distorted through the lens of politics.  And in this aspect, Morgan also provides a sensitive awareness and consciously tries to bring the paradoxes and ironies of the past to bear on the present.  While extremists of all stripes endeavor to undo the synthetic history of symbiosis that is omnipresent in our sources, Morgan’s project, like that of Maria Rosa Menocal, Chris Lowney and Richard Rubenstein – all of whom have written equally valuable works on the important role that Islam has played in the context of Western civilization, is to survey the past and to unearth the seminal figures that have provided us with a foundation for the study of math, philosophy and science.

There is little question that today we see a resurgence of ethnic hatred in the wake of the many conflicts that now exist at the heart of the Arab-Muslim world.  But it is equally true that the shadows which have slowly but surely crept into this history have exacerbated the already-existing state of incomprehension and hate that has grown between the West and the Muslim world.  By reviewing the great cultural achievements of this critical part of the human past, Michael Hamilton Morgan has done us a tremendous service. 

On each and every page of Lost History we learn from the historical past new names, new facts and new ways of seeing our contemporary culture.  For each fact about science that we thought we understood, there is a precise analogue in the Islamicate civilization.  From the beginnings of human flight, to our understanding of disease, to our knowledge of the universe, the bridges linking us to the ancient Greco-Roman science have been built in the Arab-Muslim world.  Morgan looks not simply at isolated instances of this bridge-building, but comprehensively accounts for the wider trajectory of Muslim society – from Iraq to Spain, but also from Iran to India to China; from the Abbasids and Umayyads, but also to the Seljuks, Mughals and Ottomans.

The great genius of Arabic civilization must be learned in order to understand the way in which our contemporary civilization has been configured.  In Lost History we now have in one convenient volume a broad and inclusive resource that is within the grasp of the average reader and which will provide the specialist with a pedagogical tool making accessible the rich world of Islamic science.

Keeping in mind the ways in which many scholars have in their polemics obscured the genius of this civilization for partisan reasons, the achievement of Lost History is by no means minor or negligible.  It is the first book in our time that takes a panoramic look at the civilization of the Muslim world and restores its major figures, ideas and schools in a readable prose that will enlighten the average reader and open their minds to an alternative way of seeing history that refuses to accept the categories of hate and polarization that continue to infect our increasingly unhinged world.  It is a book that will serve as an ideal entrance point into the world of Maimonides and the noble Sephardic tradition and force those who are ignorant of that culture to better appreciate the greatness of what our progenitors were able to achieve and to bequeath to us.

David Shasha


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