Literary Notes By Intizar Husain

COLUMN: Pearls of wisdom By Intizar Husain
Dawn, February 3, 2008

In the year 832 an academy named Bayt-ul-Hikmah (House of Wisdom) was founded in Baghdad with a programme to translate scholarly works from Greek, Sanskrit and Persian into Arabic.

THE book I have just received and read has led me to think that Muslim intellectuals living in the West are at present faced with a difficult situation. Muslim extremist groups have by their thoughts and actions created an impression about Muslims and Islam that is hardly palatable to the civilised world of our times. In the ensuing atmosphere the Muslim intellectuals associated with universities and other academic bodies find themselves estranged and alienated. How to do away with the tarnished image of Islam and Muslim Millat is now the problem they are faced with.

The author of the book referred to above is a Pakistani scholar living in France. He is Mustayeen bin Mahmood Ahmad Khan as he names himself. He did his MSc from Government College, Lahore. Later he went abroad and did his MPhil, PhD and DSc in the field of chemistry from Louis Pasteur University in Strabourg, France. At present he is an associate professor at the Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Angers, France.

‘At the threshold of the 21st century, Islam remains a badly misunderstood religion,’ he says adding that the people there have been fed ‘with preposterous and forward ideas concerning Islam, considered to be the bane of all sorts of intolerance.’

With this acute consciousness he has written a book entitled title A Chronology of Islamic Culture, wherein he has presented a ‘synopsis of the Islamic history and civilisation.’ Here he has not cared to discuss and argue; apart from passing reference to Muslim conquests, the book is mainly an inventory of Muslims’ achievements in the different branches of knowledge, along with brief introductions to the discoverers and inventors. Lest he be charged of attributing so many discoveries and inventions to Muslim scientists, the author has explained that the ‘bibliography is confined primarily to the manuals of western scholars.’

Mustayeen is sensible enough to grant that the accumulated knowledge of the present world is a sum total of contributions from myriad civilisations and each of them has its own share of discoverers and inventors. But the contribution of Muslims is extraordinarily great, because, according to him, is three-fold: first, they preserved and passed on the heritage of yore. Second, they developed and promoted experimental sciences to lofty heights. And third, they simplified and universalised all types of knowledge, especially mathematics.

The list of great Muslim minds contributing to different branches of knowledge is of course very impressive. It may astound us more than those belonging to other cultures. The reason is that the Muslims have always been under the spell of their warriors paying little attention to the contributions of their great minds’ to the world’s intellectual heritage. I will cite an example which is in a way quite amusing. Darwin’s name has been much maligned among Muslims. His theory of evolution with particular reference to man’s descent from the monkey has long been the butt of their jokes. They could hardly imagine that the real culprit belonged to their own ranks. And if some scholars were aware of this fact, they did not think fit to tell others in their community what Ibn Khaldun wrote in his Muqaddma: ‘The human level is reached after the stage of monkeys and apes. The apes are endowed with intelligence but do not possess logical analysis and from this point of view man has come after the world of monkeys.’ It was 500 years later in 1859 that Darwin presented his theory.

We should also be pleasantly surprised to learn that a few of our adored religious personalities had — in addition to their religious knowledge — some philosophical thinking or scientific knowledge, theoretical as well as experimental, to their credit.

In the year 832 an academy named Bayt-ul-Hikmah (House of Wisdom) was founded in Baghdad with a programme to translate scholarly works from Greek, Sanskrit and Persian into Arabic. This academy soon grew into a great centre of advanced learning. In the next century, around the year 972, an academy based on the same model and with the same name was founded in Cairo.

Of course this picture of an intellectual tradition is very impressive and should help in the recovery of the true image of Muslim Millat. But one may wonder and ask as to what caused the end of this great tradition and the resultant decline of Muslim thought. Mustayeen is not very convincing when he attributes the downfall solely to the sack of Baghdad and the burning of centres of learning by the Mongols in the 13th century. Why has he avoided pointing out the greater cause, which is the campaign by fundamentalist thinkers against rationalist thinking and free enquiry of inquisitive minds? Perhaps he is afraid of the possible damage to the improved image of the Millat due to references to such movements.

The author has also talked of the Europeans’ methods of borrowing knowledge from the Muslims. Europe, he says, did not adopt Arabic as the medium of instruction in their centres of learning, although Arabic in those times was the leading scientific language. Instead, ‘they translated and transferred the accumulated knowledge from Arabic into Latin.’ Later, he says, each European nation translated these treasures into their own language such as French, German, and English. Thus he concludes that ‘the final advice to developing nations is that they should learn foreign languages — knowledge is, after all, power — but should not deceive themselves that they would attain progress only by adopting a foreign language. This has no historical precedent.’

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