I was just reading Betsy
A reader sent me this list of the top 20 Muslim inventions of all time. The point is to show us how much our culture has benefited from Muslim culture. That’s all fine, but notice anything? There is nothing on the list from, oh, the past 1000 years.
The list Betsy refers to is an article by Paul Vallely titled How Islamic inventors changed the world, promoting an exhibition in Manchester, “1001 Inventions: Discover the Muslim Heritage in Our World”
“1001 Inventions: Discover the Muslim Heritage in Our World” is a new exhibition which began a nationwide tour this week. It is currently at the Science Museum in Manchester.
While Mr. Vallely chooses to ignore the benefits of a classical education, I don’t. Let’s take a brief look at the 20 items Paul Vallely nominates as “20 of the most influential” Muslim innovations:
Item #3, chess: The article itself states A form of chess was played in ancient India but the game was developed into the form we know it today in Persia, which at the time was pre-Islamic.
Item #4, flying machines: A thousand years before the Wright brothers a Muslim poet, astronomer, musician and engineer named Abbas ibn Firnas made several attempts to construct a flying machine.
As my friend used to say, trying isn’t the same thing as doing. Hundreds of people throughout the ages have died trying to fly while making “several attempts to construct a flying machine”, from Daedalus and Icarus down to some fool doing drugs in our times.
Item #6, distillation: was invented in China during the Song Dynasty (960-1127 A.D)
Item #8, quilting: as the article itself states, another invention (like #3) invented by others but used by Muslims.
Item #10, medical science: In the 13th century, another Muslim medic named Ibn Nafis described the circulation of the blood, 300 years before William Harvey discovered it.
In The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (And the Crusades) Robert Spencer explains (p. 93):
Yet it was not a Muslim, but a Belgian physician and researcher, Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), who paved the way for modern medical advances by publishing the first accurate description of human internal organs, De Humanai Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body) in 1543. Why? Because Vesalius was able to dissect human bodies, while that practice was forbidden in Islam. What’s more, Vesalius’s book is filled with detailed anatomical drawings – but also forbidden in Islam are artistic representations of the human body.
On page 91, Spencer states
The first Arabic-language medical treatise was written by a Christian priest and translated into Arabic by a Jewish doctor in 683.
Item #11, windmills: as noted in the article, another Persian invention.
Item #14, numbering: The system of numbering in use all round the world is probably Indian in origin but the style of the numerals is Arabic and first appears in print in the work of the Muslim mathematicians al-Khwarizmi and al-Kindi around 825. Algebra was named after al-Khwarizmi’s book, Al-Jabr wa-al-Muqabilah, much of whose contents are still in use.
In The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (And the Crusades) Robert Spencer explains (again, p. 93):
in fact, the principles upon which al-Khawarizmi worked were discovered centuries before he was born — including the zero, which is often attributed to Muslims. Even what we know today as “Arabic numerals” did not originate in Arabia, but in pre-Islamic India — and they are not used in the Arabic language today.
Item #15, glass: He also introduced crystal glasses (which had been invented after experiments with rock crystal by Abbas ibn Firnas may be correct if the glasses they have in mind were carved from rock crystal (quartz).
However, the Romans manufactured and used glass during the Republican period, and glassware became popular during Augustus’s reign (Augustus lived in 31 B.C. – 14 A.D.). A later example (circa AD 150/160-200) of pre-Islam drinking glasses was found in Sweden at the Öremölla burial site.
There are other rare surviving drinking vessels made of glass that predate Islam.
Item #18, the earth’s a sphere: By the 9th century, many Muslim scholars took it for granted that the Earth was a sphere
Eratosthenes of Cyrene (276-194 BC) did the numbers a full 11 centuries earlier.
Item #20, gardens for beauty and meditation but it was the Arabs who developed the idea of the garden as a place of beauty and meditation
This too, is incorrect. I will only use two examples in antiquity:
In the Odyssey, Book V Homer describes the garden of Calypso:
“And round about the cave there was a wood blossoming, alder and poplar and sweet-smelling cypress. And therein roosted birds long of wing, owls and falcons and chattering sea-crows, which have their business in the waters. And lo, there about the hollow cave trailed a gadding garden vine, all rich with clusters. And fountains four set orderly were running with clear water, hard by one another, turned each to his own course. And all around soft meadows bloomed of violets and parsley, yea, even a deathless god who came thither might wonder at the sight and be glad at heart.”
Additionally, Aristotle‘s (384-322 BCE) Academia was held in a grove of olive trees, considered to be a sacred space.
By the way, a fifth-century Christian priest, Probus of Antioch, introduced Aristotle to the Arabic-speaking world.
I won’t be able to attend the Manchester exhibition, but I certainly hope that it’s based on more factual material than Vallely used in his article.
Follow-up post That list of top 20 Muslim inventions, and Dr. Sultan
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