Showcasing Ancient Muslim Scientists and Thinkers, an Exhibit Invites Debate on Reviving Innovation in the Islamic World

The idea for a global traveling exhibition that showcases innovation of Islam’s early scientists started with an elephant and a clock — an ornate and elaborate 14th century timepiece created with the most sophisticated science of its day.

The manuscript depicting an Indian elephant with a 10-foot pillared housing on its back, festooned with figurines of Chinese dragons and Egyptian phoenixes, was among the ancient Islamic documents found five years ago by an architectural firm doing research for a themed shopping mall based on travels of the famed Arab voyager Ibn Battuta.

Dubai-based MTE Studios built a replica of the Elephant Water Clock, whose design is attributed to Al Jazari, a remarkable Middle Ages inventor, mechanical engineer, artist, mathematician and astronomer. The intricate workings of the clock fueled further research into innovations of the Muslim world and eventually led to the creation of a US$4.9 million permanent display at Dubai’s Ibn Battuta Mall called "1,000 Years Of Knowledge Rediscovered."

The firm then took the concept on the road by developing ‘Islamic Science Rediscovered’ that has been displayed in Canada, South Africa and the United States. The traveling exhibit, currently being shown at The Tech Museum in San Jose, Calif., pays tribute to once-forgotten scientists and scholars whose remarkable discoveries and ideas have helped shaped modern society.

While the exhibit sidesteps the modern politics weighing on relations between the West and the Muslim world, the topic of Islamic innovation invariably fosters conversation about the state of education and scientific inquiry in Arab countries, how innovation can grow again, and how the Muslim faith has become perceived in modern times.

"Western-oriented narratives of the past now tend to dominate even outside of the West, and those versions of the past tend to highlight certain aspects important to the West’s image of itself and marginalize those elements that are not as ‘useful,’" says Paul M. Cobb, associate professor of Near Eastern languages and civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania.

"By far the dominant version of history has been to see Islamic science solely as a torch-bearer: to consider this science as only important for what it preserved of ancient Greek learning (for example) and passed on to the West — the idea being that only the West could truly do anything worthwhile with this learning. This version of history is of course terribly inaccurate in a way that I would call ‘Eurocentric.’ "

A Surviving Glory

A life-size reconstruction of the Elephant Water Clock is the centerpiece of Ibn Battuta Mall, and even the weariest shoppers stop to pose by its massive bulk. But it also symbolizes what is known as the Golden Age of Islam, beginning in the mid-eighth century and continuing about 700 years. From the Abbasid dynasty’s rule beginning in A.D. 750, innovation in science, mathematics and the arts flourished in the Islamic world. Modern principles of astronomy and the creation of algebra are but a few advances that originated with Muslims from that era.

But many of these Golden Age scholars and innovators have faded into the background. The names of Einstein, Darwin, Galileo and Newton resonate worldwide for their scientific breakthroughs. Few though know of Al Razi, who wrote the Comprehensive Book of Medicine or the Persian mathematician Al Khwarizmi, who authored the first book on algebra and whose name the word algorithm is derived; or of Abbas Ibn Firnas, who soared over the Spanish countryside in a one-man glider a thousand years before the Wright brothers took flight in North Carolina.

The show attempts to pull these figures out from historical obscurity, and present the scale and breadth of inventions from that period in Islamic history, with more than 50 interactive exhibits covering architecture, arts, astronomy, engineering, exploration, flight, mathematics, medicine and optics.

The exhibition could not have found a more receptive temporary home than the capital of Silicon Valley. In San Jose, it resonates with the wired world humming just beyond the museum’s doors. Equally important, however, is the message it sends to Muslims.

"Some of the past survives in us," says Tech Museum docent Ranjana Mehra, a California educator who once lived in Iran. "Even if others do not recognize it they know in their heart of hearts these things were done. That glory survives."

Condensing a 700-year period into a digestible exhibition was an enormous undertaking. The creators had to scrupulously detail Islamic history to begin to capture the scope of the eclectic contributions of the Golden Age. According to historians, Islam’s advancement rose out of the collapse of the Roman Empire. While Europe withered in the Dark Ages, Muslims prospered fewer than 100 years after Islam’s origins in Arabia in the seventh century. They held wide swaths of territory from Spain to Iran while living in relative peace. The circumstances allowed for a cross-fertilization of ideas that promoted creativity.

The travelling museum highlights this important part of history when featuring the House Of Wisdom, a Baghdad society founded by Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid in the first century after the founding of Islam. The house was a repository of the world’s greatest texts of the time, and Baghdad became the center of scholarly pursuits. The academics translated works of Persian, Indian and Greek into Arabic to help them build on previous discoveries.

For example, early Muslim physicists inherited two conflicting theories of vision from the Greeks. One suggested that eyes produce light rays that bounce off an object back into the eye. The other theory held that light rays originate from the object being viewed. Ibn Al Haytham, a 10th century Iraqi civil servant, investigated the theories and eventually made great advances with his seven-volume Book of Optics. He invented a pinhole camera, studied eye disease, and created time-tested theories about the laws of refraction, which involve how light bends.

"We went to great pains to ensure that this exhibition is accurate and scientifically (as opposed to religiously) based, but we believe that the contributions made by Muslim scholars to modern civilization is a great story to tell," says Shereen Shabnam, MTE Studios’ business development director. "Ultimately, museums and exhibitions are about storytelling and about extracting meaning from otherwise mundane events; there is a lot of meaning in these events and in this exhibition."

Sidestepping Modern Politics

Although the exhibition carefully avoids religious overtones it presents a face of Islam not always seen in the West.

Waheed Hussain, a Wharton assistant professor of legal studies and business ethics, says it’s important for Muslims to see positive images of themselves so they don’t feel marginalized. The exhibit reminds them that science and technology and the spirit of innovation are a legitimate part of their heritage. "It helps the world see Muslims in a different light," says Hussain. "It’s not just about Palestine and terrorism all the time."

Pervez Hoodbhoy, head of the physics department at the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan, and author of Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality, is less enthusiastic about such exhibits. He says Muslim science is now showcased only inside museums as "a relic of the past." He cites the Indian Muslim educator and religious scholar, Syed Ahmad Khan, who 150 years ago worried that stagnation came from a tendency among Muslims to live in the past.

Hoodbhoy, also a senior academic scientist at the National Center for Nuclear Physics in Islamabad, has taken the mantle from Syed Ahmad Khan by being a vociferous proponent of creative thinking in the Muslim world. While many Muslim governments advocate increasing science budgets, he says, few are promoting a culture of science. "Good science is all about ideas, the flight of the imagination, the unsparing rigor of logic and empirical testing, and the firm belief that physical law rules the universe," he says. "Laboratories and equipment are secondary. Note that the most powerful engines of science — mathematics and theoretical physics — are also the most parsimonious in terms of physical resources. They are almost entirely missing from all Muslim countries except, to an extent, in Iran and Turkey."

However, Cobb, from the University of Pennsylvania, sees exhibitions such as the one playing at the Tech Museum as agents of change. He hopes his institution also plays a role in spotlighting scientific contributions of Muslims with the recently opened Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at Penn Libraries. It offers a collection of medieval and renaissance manuscripts of scientific works from Europe and the Islamic world.

Cobb says the new institute has the potential to broaden understanding by making "manuscripts and artifacts and the work of these lost and forgotten scientists more accessible to a wide audience, not just academics. It’s one thing for academics to debate these things; but change won’t happen until the general public starts to absorb this shift in viewing the past, and in understanding the long historical relationship between the Islamic world and the West."

Historians of Islamic science try to understand every dimension of the pioneers they study because it is impossible to make distinctions between religion and science and between rational and irrational thought. "This is incredibly important because most of the medieval Islamic scientists were also at the same time experts in fields of "religion" (theology, law, tradition) or other practices considered "irrational" like alchemy or astrology," adds Cobb. "This helps us appreciate how "rational" inquiry informs religious practice and vice-versa."

Debating A Renaissance

While roaming through the "Islamic Science Rediscovered" exhibit it is difficult not to wonder why such innovation seemingly ends among Muslim societies in the 1300s.

Historians say that multiple factors contributed to the decline of Islam’s Golden Age, punctuated by the Mongols’ destruction of Baghdad in A.D. 1258. However, it wasn’t the only conflict that led to changes in Islam. Battles between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and the Crusades also contributed to the end of an age of Islamic innovation. Then a shift in learning centers began with the European Renaissance in the 14th century.

"During the Renaissance there was a real embrace of the intellectual roots in Greeks of a lot of Western ideas," says Wharton’s Hussain. "But it was kind of the opposite with respect to Islam. It’s kind of a product of a very conflicted interaction between the Islamic world and Christian world in the medieval era. There wasn’t a lot of interest in retaining that part of the historical connection.

"The Inquisition was a big moment where the Christian world was looking to erase its connections with the Muslim world," continues Hussain. "Erase or distance itself from the historical connection it had."

The Islamic philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a George Washington University professor, has been troubled by what he views as revisionist history by some Western scholars. In a speech delivered more than a decade ago to students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology he said the annihilation of Baghdad by the Mongols had a lasting impact on history.

"Now, the consequence of that is the overlooking of 700 years, not 70 years, 700 years, of Islamic intellectual history during which the Muslims were supposed to have done nothing," Nasr said in his address.

"The idea (which) is propagated in the West (is) that Muslims are very brilliant, that they did science and things like that, (and then) suddenly decided to turn the switch off and went to selling beads and playing with their rosaries in the bazaar for the next 700 years… This hiatus has not been created by history itself. It has been created by the study of history from the particular perspective of Western scholarship."

Reaching back into Islam’s past provides another explanation. According to 14th century Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun, a forefather of the fields of sociology and economics, societies simply change over time, and "breed their own decline by abandoning the pioneering spirit that initially lead to their ascendancy by indulging in excessive luxury and depravity, which eventually leads to moral decay and the dissolution of a formerly healthy society," says MTE Studios’ Shabnam.

Pakistan’s Hoodbhoy adds Muslims only need to look inward to explain what happened. "The fact is that the powerful anti-science and anti-reason religious orthodoxy that brought Golden Age Muslim science to a grinding halt never went away," he says. "Today, the Insha’Allah (If God wills) culture, which explicitly rejects the relation between cause and effect, is ubiquitous in Muslim countries."

But Cobb, the University of Pennsylvania professor, prefers a more broad-brush perspective.

"A complete history of Islamic science shows us the diversity of Muslim experiences in the Middle Ages," he says. "On the one hand, it shows us that, unlike what you might hear today, the Islamic world was not a hotbed of irrational religious fanatics, but a highly literate place where knowledge was deeply cherished for knowledge’s sake and where — by any scale — scientific progress was expanding rapidly."

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