Sultans of Spin


Kate Taylor (no relation) recently reviewed the Ontario Science Centre’s latest big-ticket exhibit, Sultans of Science, in the Globe & Mail.  The exhibit was originally built for a shopping mall in Dubai—intended to highlight the scientific contributions of Muslim civilisation—but has now been unpackaged and set up at the OSC.

I am all for giving individual Muslims their due, knowledgeable philosophers and polymaths like Ibn Sina and Al-Jazari. There is no question that these men achieved phenomenal insights hundreds of years before their more well-known European counterparts.  But to claim it all under the rubric of Islamic science is a bit rich; not unlike claiming Moses—who led the Israelite tribes out of Egyptian slavery—as the founder of modern emancipation movements.  He may well have been the first, but the world outside the Israelite tribes regarded slavery much as it had before.

Ms. Taylor sums it up best:

The problem is that this exhibition, originally created for a shopping mall in Dubai in 2006 by the themed-architecture firm MTE Studios, is not a scholarly exercise: Your first clue is its repeated use of the term “Dark Ages” to describe the state of Europe at the time. Contemporary historians now largely eschew those words. Certainly, the Islamic world was civilization’s bridge between the ancient world and the Renaissance, but how exactly learning was communicated from Islam to Europe is a question largely ignored here.

Europe was hardly “stagnating in the Dark Ages,” if the medical canon written by Persian doctor Ibn Sina (or Avicenna) in the 11th century was widely enough known in the West to become a standard medical text there, as the exhibit tells us. And if the organizers are going to insinuate that the English doctor Harvey plagiarized Nafis, as they do, it would help if they talked a bit about the spread of Nafis’s ideas outside Islam.

— Kate Taylor.  “Giving ancient Islam its due“, Globe & Mail, February 7th, 2009.

The larger story here, unaddressed by both exhibit and reviewer, is what did that civilisation do with these potentially game-changing insights?  The answer is that it marginalised them as mere trinkets and toys for the elite, and set them aside as curiosities mostly incompatible with an Islamic universe ordered by the will of Allah.  The 11th century Islamic civilisation armed with a vastly better understanding of geography, medicine, physics, rudimentary mechanics and robotics continued to spread its borders, but largely sat in scientific neutral after the 13th century.

Europe, meanwhile, rediscovered many of the classical themes, philosophies and knowledge that earlier Islamic scholars had been so careful to preserve.  And then went on to make practical use of them in commerce, politics, transportation and warfare.

If I get anything out of exhibits like this, it is the opposite of what the designers intended.  While I am awed by the intellectual achievements of men like Ibn Said and Al-Jaziri, I am saddened that their patrons did not see any practical social use for their innovations.  Islam has squandered its historic intellectual capital, just as it continues to do so today.

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