Repaying the West's Debt to Islam
Science today wouldn't be as advanced without so many discoveries
from the Muslim world. It's time to reach across today's hurtful
Unless you're a history buff, it can be hard to believe how pivotal
early Islamic civilization was in laying the foundations of modern
science, mathematics, technology, and the arts. Between 600 AD and
1400 AD, Europe was caught in a bleak time, commonly termed the
Dark Ages. During that same period, however, Islamic societies were
making fundamental discoveries.
The contributions of early Islamic people are far too numerous
to list. A few innovations starting with the letter "a"
are: acetic acid, alcohol, almanacs, aloe, and astrolabes. In addition,
these people were adept at improving the technologies and inventions
that Muslim traders brought back from China.
In the sciences, Islamic scholars began converting Greek speculations
into a process for uncovering verifiable facts. They made fundamental
contributions to medicine, astronomy, chemistry, physics, and optics.
In medicine, for example, Muslim scientists developed a hollow needle
for removing cataracts from the eye by suction -- around 1,000 years
ago. And mathematics was a Muslim forte, as seen in the creation
of algebra and the Arabic number system that we use today.
AT ODDS AGAIN. New musical instruments, such as the violin and
the guitar, which most people associate with Western music, owe
their origins to the peoples of North Africa and Asia Minor. Islamic
artistic contributions ranged from architecture and calligraphy
to painting and poetry.
These ideas and discoveries spread outside the Muslim world as
a result, ironically, of the Crusades. Although Europe lost militarily,
the transfer of goods and ideas led directly to the Renaissance.
All this is particularly surprising when juxtaposed with the contemporary
view of Muslim society as being theocratic and backward.
Hundreds of years after the Crusades, the Western and Muslim worlds
are once again at odds. While the West is racing ahead in industrialization
and human rights, the Muslim world seems less eager for change.
If Westernization threatens to undermine their proud history, many
Islamic countries would rather foresake foreign amenities, preserve
their customs and culture, and continue leading a religious life
according to the Quran.
GROWING DISTRUST. Islamic resistance to change may stem largely
from the desires of political and religious leaders to preserve
their power. But skepticism toward Western modernity is not illogical.
Some horrific events of the 20th century were justified in terms
of "scientific" and "innovative" thinking. Both
Hitler and Stalin employed the tools of modern science to advance
programs that they viewed as highly "rational."
Coming on top of the political mayhem in the Middle East wrought
by the West and its imperialistic policies from the late 19th century
until after World War I, it's hardly surprising that the Muslim
world views the West with suspicion. The creation and continuing
support of Israel, and now the war on terrorism, have only intensified
Perhaps it's time for the West to remember its debts to the Muslim
world and help Islamic society to regain its past glory -- on their
terms, not ours.
SEE AND BE SEEN. As a beginning, we must establish mutual trust.
Given the condescending and stereotypical viewpoints with which
each has viewed the other, one small step might be for the U.S.
State Dept. or philanthropic organizations to arrange regular visits
by Muslim clerics to U.S. universities and public TV and radio shows.
Many Americans know so little about the Muslim religion that they
would be pleasantly surprised to learn it's more tolerant of other
religions than some Protestant denominations are, and more catholic
in outlook than Catholicism.
School teachers from Islamic countries could be invited to join
educational workshops organized by such groups as the National Science
Teachers Assn. and the National Science Foundation. Simultaneous
translations would be available even to small contingents.
Leaders from Muslim communities in the U.S. could make sponsored
goodwill tours of the Middle East. Hopefully, they would convey
the message that the first amendment of our Constitution guarantees
people the right to worship freely as long as it doesn't harm others.
Hearing this from fellow Muslims who live in the U.S. might help
persuade skeptics that, contrary to past lessons of history, Western
culture does not imply meddling in the religious preferences of
WORDS TO LIVE BY. Such actions could be a start, but changing mindsets
on both sides will be a long-term effort. Whatever the duration,
we must be patient and remember that we're honoring a debt, expecting
nothing in return. We must accept that the Muslin leaders who emerge
may not agree with us on all things.
It will be a Herculean task, but not an impossible one. Through
it all, people-to-people contacts will be vital. The wisdom for
that permeates Western culture -- even popular music. In the words
of a Sting song: "You can't control an independent heart...
If you love someone, set them free."