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NON-FICTION: The Muslim contribution

March 06, 2011


The text and illustrations make one feel — for a split second — as if one is in Abbasid Baghdad’s famed Bayt al-Hikmah or present at the cliff in Cordoba just before Abbas ibn Firnas is about to leap off into the great beyond in his bird costume.

IT is important to know about the scientific and cultural contributions Muslims have made to civilisation, not to gloat about the achievements of the past but to find inspiration for the future. In this respect Muslim Heritage in Our World serves as a formidable compendium of information that sheds light on the past and helps illustrate how the Muslim scientists, thinkers and polymaths of the past helped lay the foundation of the modern world.

Edited by Professor Salim T.S. Al-Hassani, Elizabeth Woodcock and Rabh Saoud, this is the second edition of the book. It was originally part of the 1001 Inventions project, which included an exhibition and website. Scholars from leading educational institutions of the Middle East and Europe have contributed to the book and served as consultants.

The volume is divided into seven — chapters, home, school, market, hospital, town, world and universe — with each chapter containing details of inventions relevant to that field. Part textbook, part museum exhibit, Muslim Heritage ably melds history and science in a series of readable articles aided by rich illustrations and photographs.

For example, Persian and Turkish paintings from classical texts featuring almond-eyed figures with huge turbans are used side by side with modern illustrations depicting how medieval contraptions functioned.

Though the book primarily appears to target students, people of all age groups can benefit from the fascinating facts contained within. Pointing to the influence Islam exerted on Europe, the book mentions that a cross was discovered in Ireland — said to date back to the 9th century — with the Bismillah inscribed on it in Kufic script.

One of the major challenges when writing books on science or history is to make them readable so that the reader does not fall asleep. Muslim Heritage in Our World succeeds on this count as the articles are written in an engaging style that brings the past to life. The text and illustrations make one feel — for a split second — as if one is in Abbasid Baghdad’s famed Bayt al-Hikmah or present at the cliff in Cordoba just before Abbas ibn Firnas is about to leap off into the great beyond in his bird costume.

Along with more serious subjects such as chemistry, medicine and astronomy we learn about what Muslims, such as Ziryab, the ‘Blackbird of Andalusia’, did for fashion, fine dining and music. While there are write-ups on such refined arts as calligraphy and architecture, we also get a detailed sample of what a three-course meal in 13th century Muslim Spain would have tasted like, starting off with meat soup with cabbage and ending with a dessert known as Tharda of the Emir, all washed down with pomegranate juice.

Whereas in the modern age, where the use of genetically-modified crops and chemical-based fertilisers is the norm, Muslims of the past used farming methods that were in harmony with nature. For example, in the fields outside Isfahan there were said to be thousands of ‘pigeon towers’, where the birds’ droppings were collected and used to create organic fertiliser.

The section on life in cities is particularly interesting, for as the book states, “Life in cities like 9th and 10th century Cordoba and Baghdad was a pleasurable experience. This was high civilisation with free education and healthcare plus public amenities… Rubbish was collected on a regular basis… and some sewerage systems were underground.” Compare this situation to modern metropolises in many Muslim countries, such as Karachi, Cairo or Jakarta, which are chaotic jumbles of urban clutter.

Medieval Paris, on the other hand, was not as romantic as its modern version for as the book states, “Paris was known as ‘The Muddy’ because pedestrians were blocked by heaps of steaming offal and garbage, with pigs scavenging through courtyards and streets.”

A particularly intriguing figure — one out of many — found in the book is that of Zheng He, the Muslim Chinese admiral of the 15th century who, with his skill at marshalling the naval armada at his command, made China the master of the seas at the time. As an illustration aptly shows, Zheng He’s ships were perhaps the most advanced and awe-inspiring vessels on the seas. If a comparison is to be made using modern aircraft, Christopher Columbus’s Niña appears to be a small re-gional jet compared to Zheng He’s super-jumbo.

Books like Muslim Heritage in Our World are important because much of history has been written from a Eurocentric perspective. This is not to say that Muslims should be credited with every positive thing in the universe. Rather, the Eurocentric approach has not always resulted in fair assessments of other cultures’ contributions to knowledge and learning and scholars of the day need to reinterpret history keeping in mind the contributions of other cultures — including Islam — to civilisation. The reviewer is an assistant editor, Dawn

1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World (SCIENCE) Edited by T. S. Al-Hassani Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation, Machester ISBN 978-0-9552426-1-8 376pp. Price not listed