Why is the BBC spending taxpayers’ money to perpetuate the fairy tale of a golden age of Islam? Why is the Beeb peddling a PC myth that is skewed and reductionist at best and ideologically freighted and erroneous at worst?
The BBC’s re-creation of the Middle Ages depicts Cordoba in Muslim Spain with ‘street lighting and running water.’ In contrast Londoners ‘lived in timber-framed houses and used the river as their sewer.’ ‘Muslims were going to beauty parlours, using deodorants and drinking from glasses, at a time when English books of behaviour were still telling page-boys not to pick their nose over their food, spit on the table, or throw uneaten food onto the floor,’ says Auntie, brainwashing school children in her history lessons.
The West was in the gutter while the Muslim world was bathing in perfume. That’s right, says the BBC. Islamic civilisation extricated Europe from the Dark Ages and brought her kicking and screaming into the Enlightenment. Is the Beeb telling us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
Any logician will tell you that it is a fallacy to confuse causation with correlation. This is the Achilles’ heel of the Beeb’s revisionist history, which by implication attributes the achievements of the Abbasid Empire to the religion of Islam.
But was the Abbasid Empire really Islamic? When the BBC outlines the wars of conquest it does not label them ‘Islamic’. Fighting wars is attributed to the Seljuk Turks, nomadic Turks, and Ottoman Turks. In Auntie’s world of Alice in Blunderland historical fantasy, Islamic imperialism is praiseworthy as it led to universal enlightenment but Western imperialism is evil as it led to colonialism.
But don’t all empires conquer, colonise, exploit, as well as energise their peoples by drawing on previously existing indigenous skills and exporting them across its territories? The Muslim empire was spread over three continents. It included Persians, Syrians, Egyptians,Turks, Spaniards, and Indians, who practised Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Christianity.
In fact, for the first several centuries of the progressive Islamic empire, Muslims were numerically few. Ironically, when conversions to Islam steeply rose in the 10th century therewere ‘negative consequences for the pursuit of the natural sciences and intellectual life in general,’ writes historian Toby Huff in The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West.
Why? Muslims viewed the natural sciences as ‘foreign sciences’. ‘From the outset, devout Muslims were inclined to think that all wisdom was contained in the Quran and that therefore all true sciences must be found therein,’ says Huff. Islamic sciences were those devoted to studying the Koran, the Hadith, jurisprudence, theology, poetry, and the Arabic language. One major source of foreign science was the classic Greek works following the Aristotelian tradition. The vast majority of these were translated into Arabic by colonised Christian or Jewish scholars. Other sources of learning were borrowed from India and Persia.
Arabic numerals and the symbol zero were imported from India. The compass and paper were imported from China. Muslim sailors made use of the Greek knowledge of latitude. The golden age was thefruit of intellectual collaboration. A synthesis of Greek, Persian, Indian, and Armenian learning traditions had already taken place within the pre-IslamicSassanid Persian Empire. Islam’s contribution was its imperialism, which brought these diverse groups together.
Many of the scholars who made significant contributions to medicine, science, geometry, astronomy and logic, did so in spite of Islam and not because of Islam. The Persian polymath Al-Razi, perhaps the greatest Muslim-born scientist in the then Islamic world, made lasting contributions to medicine, alchemy, and philosophy, recorded in over 200 books and articles. He considered the Koran as an assorted mixture of ‘absurd and inconsistent fables.’
The philosophy of the Uzbek born Avicenna or Ibn Sina who wrote al-Qanun—an encyclopaedia of medicine—was based on a combination of Aristotelianism and Neo-Platonism. The Islamic philosopher al-Ghazali called him an apostate for dismissing some of the central doctrines of Islam. The Syrian poet, sceptic and freethinker Al-Ma’arri despised religions in general and Islam in particular. The great Omar Khayyam of Iran whose Ruba’iyat are world famous was an epicurean philosopher and a rationalist sceptic who scorned Islam. The Spanish philosopher and scientist Averroes or Ibn Rushd considered Aristotle as the ‘perfect man’. He was condemned for heresy by the Christian, Jewish and Islamic hierarchy and his works were frequently burned.
The tide began to turn when Muslim intellectuals began to reject the wisdom of the ancient Greeks and the epistemology of their contemporaries and returned to the orthodox message of Islam. One of the best known was the theologian, jurist and philosopher al-Ghazali, who turned the tide of progress in his influential book The Incoherence of the Philosophers. He rejected Aristotle and Plato and attacked the “Islamic” philosophers who drew on the Ancient Greeks.
This is one reason why the golden age of Islam did not give rise to modern science—a question the BBC conveniently ignores. Professor Huff answers the question by arguing that the modern scientific revolution was born from a fusion between ‘Greek philosophy, Roman law, and Christian theology’ that ‘laid a foundation for believing in the essential rationality of man and nature.’
I first came across the re-writing of history while growing up in India. Suddenly ultra rightwing “historians” sponsored by the saffron brigade of the militant Hindu Sangh Parivar (family organisation) were re-writing school textbooks and claiming that the Vatican, Westminster Abbey and the Taj Mahal were once temples to the Hindu god Shiva. Another historical achievement of the golden age of Hinduism, they announced, is the “fact” that the first airplane was invented in India when the mythological Hindu god Ram flew from Sri Lanka to Ayodhya. I had grown up in India believing that I could trust the BBC for its commitment to fairness and objectivity. That, I now realize, was a myth of my own making.