Mosque Fire not a Hate Crime – Yeah, sure!

Arson, but not a hate crime.

mosque-torchedWith Europe and America in a state of near-panic over possible New Year attacks – and ready to blame just about every act of violence on Islamic terrorists, the arson attack on an Islamic religious centre in Houston, Texas, was probably just a couple of naughty school boys playing with matches.

Officials Say No Evidence Houston Mosque Fire Was Hate Crime

But the fire remains suspicious

Federal officials say there’s no evidence that a recent fire at a Houston mosque was a hate crime.

Officials at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told KHOU 11 News that there’s no evidence that the two-alarm fire is part of a hate crime. Houston Fire Department investigators say the cause of the fire does not appear to be an accident.

Firefighters responded to the fire on Christmas Day. As TIME previously reported, the fire looks suspicious since the fire had multiple points of origin, and arson is a possibility. Other businesses besides the mosque were damaged. No injuries were reported.

Investigators are continuing to work around the clock, KHOU reports.

Source: Time Magazine


Şeb-i Arus: A Death and a Wedding – Bringing people together

I had to work last Friday afternoon. I wasn’t 100 per cent happy, but I was doing a favour for a young colleague who wanted to swap her afternoon classes for mine in the morning. The reason? She was heading to Konya for the weekend.

42 magic cube

42 – More than just a number

I’ve had occasion to write about Konya before. First and foremost, number plates on the cars of its citizens are prefixed with its administrative number, 42. The mystical significance of that number is strengthened by the city’s history as the home and last resting place of Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, the 13th century Sufi philosopher also known as Mevlana or simply Rumi.

Rumi was born in 1207 CE in Khorasan, in present day Afghanistan, but his family moved to Anatolia in 1228 on the invitation of the Seljuk Emperor, Alaeddin Keykübad – the one mentioned in Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam’s ‘Rubaiyat’. Undoubtedly the Seljuks recorded dates using the Islamic lunar calendar, but it has been determined that Rumi passed away on 17 December 1273. Accordingly, a two-week festival is held every year in Konya to mark the event, known as Şeb-i Arus in Turkey.

channel 42

Konya television

The phrase Şeb-i Arus is an interesting mix of Persian and Arabic words meaning ‘Wedding Night’. These two languages bear a similar relationship to modern Turkish as Latin and ancient Greek do to modern English: they were the languages of religion, science, medicine, literature and the arts, and scholarship in general. The founders of the Republic of Turkey, aiming to make a clean break with their Ottoman past, attempted to ‘return’ to a pure Turkish, employing a Latin alphabet. The latter reform was successful (though not everyone was happy) but the former was doomed to failure from the start.

But why ‘Wedding Night’ you may ask. The reason is that, according to the Sufi philosophy, the true life of the spirit begins after the death of the physical body – so that material ‘death’ is in fact a transition to a higher plane of existence whereby the human soul is ‘wedded’ to the ultimate reality.

don't be sad

Grieve not! The thorn in your foot brings news of the rose you were seeking.

Well, not all of us are able to dismiss so lightly the apparent reality of life on Earth. Veil of illusion it may be, but the world of friends, family, study, work, marriage, children, food and shelter, sickness and health, demands our attention – and we ignore its demands at our peril. So what’s a person to do?

Sufism (Tasavvuf in Turkish) is not a sect of Islam – it has been called the inner, mystical dimension of that religion. Its appeal to non-Muslims is its rejection of the dogma associated with orthodox religions. According to the Mevlana website Rumi’s doctrine ‘advocates unlimited tolerance, positive reasoning, goodness, charity and awareness through love. To him all religions were more or less truth.’ . . [Like India’s Mahatma Gandhi, he] looked with the same eye on Muslim, Jew and Christian alike.

sema 2

Sema ceremony

Orthodox Sunni Muslims represent the majority in Turkey, and Sufism is a largely Anatolian phenomenon. Its followers regard it as the purest form of Islam, but most of its sects were outlawed after the foundation of the Republic because they were perceived as politically reactionary. The Mevlevi followers of Rumi, however, were permitted to continue as a kind of living cultural treasure because of their emphasis on the spiritual importance of music, poetry and dance. Interestingly, these are also features of Alevi worship – whose adherents represent a substantial twenty per cent minority in modern Turkey.

Alevism is a heterodox belief system which seems to defy simple definition. Like the Alawites across the border in Syria and elsewhere, they trace their origins back to the disputed question of who would succeed the Prophet Muhammed on his death. They differ from the Alawites, however, in that some of their practices and traditions seem to stem from older Turkish folk beliefs. In this they appear to have something in common with Sufism, though there is no officially recognised connection.


Ney musician in Persian culture

The most obvious identifying feature of Mevlevi worship is Sema – the characteristic ‘whirling’ of devotees accompanied by a chorus of chanting, and the eerie, breathy music of the ney. The dancers wear tall brown felt headgear and white robes that swirl outwards as they spin with one hand turned down to the earth, and the other upwards towards the heavens.

The dance represents a mystical journey of the spirit towards truth and perfection, leaving the ego behind. The dancer returns from this spiritual journey ‘as one who has reached maturity and greater perfection, so as to love and to be of service to the whole of creation.’ You might think the world could do with more of that!

The ney is reputed to be one of the world’s oldest musical instruments. It is a kind of flute with a recorded history of nearly 5,000 years. It is identified symbolically with the life force, the spirit breathed into earthly creatures by their source and creator (click to hear the sound).

For two weeks every year, a festival is held in Konya,  location of a striking green-tiled tomb housing Mevlana Rumi’s mortal remains. Thousands of visitors, from all over Turkey and further afield, congregate for festivities culminating in the ‘Wedding Night’ on 17 December. This coming Thursday will mark the 742nd anniversary of his death – and Rumi’s words still serve as inspiration for people of all faiths.

opening doors

If every door opened immediately, hope, patience and desire would have no meaning

∞ “My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that, and I intend to end up there.”

∞ “Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames”

∞ “Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river, each has a secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged”

∞ “You were born with potential.

You were born with goodness and trust. You were born with ideals and dreams. You were born with greatness.

You were born with wings.

You are not meant for crawling, so don’t.

You have wings.

Learn to use them and fly.” 


Istanbul concert, December 2015

∞ “I searched for God among the Christians and on the Cross and therein I found Him not.

I went into the ancient temples of idolatry; no trace of Him was there.

I entered the mountain cave of Hira and then went as far as Qandhar but God I found not.

With set purpose I fared to the summit of Mount Caucasus and found there only ‘anqa’s habitation.

Then I directed my search to the Kaaba, the resort of old and young; God was not there even.

Turning to philosophy I inquired about him from ibn Sina but found Him not within his range.

I fared then to the scene of the Prophet’s experience of a great divine manifestation only a “two bow-lengths’ distance from him” but God was not there even in that exalted court.

Finally, I looked into my own heart and there I saw Him; He was nowhere else.”

Half-baked atheist Richard Dorkins on the Islamic threat to world peace

More peaceful Christians

More peaceful Christians

Please see this in the context of the two following posts:

“Islam is the only religion that’s at the moment positively dangerous. It’s the only religion that is actually attempting to infiltrate the rest of the world and to take it over and, in some cases, actually by violent means. So I think anybody just looking at the politics of the situation would have to worry about it.”

He said 500 years ago, Christianity was similarly dangerous but today its “teeth have been drawn”.

Read the whole article

The Alevi Sect in Turkey

I’d like to share this article with you about the Alevi sect in Turkey. I did write a post on the subject some time ago, but this writer has done more personal research, and the accompanying photographs are very evocative. The views expressed in the article do not necessarily represent my own, but the subject is one that needs a wider readership in Turkey and beyond.

Faith and Fear in Istanbul

Text by Ömer Warraich184348_newsdetail

Photographs by John Wreford

In many ways, it resembles a traditional mosque. The worshippers slip off their shoes and tread slowly over rows of intricate, hand-woven rugs. Everyone is dressed demurely and the women tie scarves over their hair. Before the prayers begin, they sit cross-legged on the floor. Above them is a domed ceiling, in the center of which dangles a large chandelier.

But look closer and there are some key differences. The dome has 12 edges, Under each is a portrait of a different turbaned man. All of them have thick beards and piercing eyes, their faces shadowed by a saintly penumbra. These are the 12 imams revered by Shiites—Imam Ali, his son, Imam Husayn, and the 10 who came after them. All but the last of them were killed.

The timing is different from a traditional mosque as well. It is Thursday evening, the time of the week when many Sufis across the Muslim divide gather for spiritual remembrance, rather than Friday afternoon, when most Muslims meet once a week for prayer. There is no pulpit. There isn’t even a niche in the direction of Mecca. Instead, the worshippers sit in a circle of about 50 men and at least twice as many women. They sit near each other, the women as prominently placed as the men. Read the whole article

Christmas Turkeys on the Road to Perdition

We had a visit from the Pope recently, here in Istanbul. His Holiness doesn’t live too very far away, but he’s not a regular visitor, so there was good media coverage of the event, here and abroad. According to Wikipedia, Christians in Turkey account for a mere 0.13% of the country’s 75 million people – and RCs are so few they don’t even warrant a mention. There are, however, a couple of quite grand 19th century churches in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul, and several prestigious schools sponsored by the French government with beatific names like St Benoit and St Pulcherie dating from times when West European states had their imperialist eyes on the declining Ottoman Empire – so the Vatican feels obliged to show the flag from time to time, I guess.

Two old guys comparing fancy dress

Two old guys comparing fancy dress

Anyway, there he was, Pope Francis, joining local Muslims in prayer at the 17th century Mosque of Sultan Ahmet I (known to tourists as the ‘Blue Mosque’), visiting the 1,500 year-old church of Hagia Sophia (these days a museum), and meeting with Bartholomew, ‘His Most Divine All-Holiness the Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church’. According to a BBC report, Francis and Bartholomew have a strong personal relationship’, and the two were expected to discuss, amongst other matters, the possibility of patching up the differences that led to the two churches going their separate ways amid great bitterness and mutual excommunications a thousand years ago, back in 1054 CE. The matter is further complicated, of course, by the fact that the Patriarch’s city was conquered by the Muslim Ottomans in 1453, since when, as the BBC article notes, it has been known as Istanbul.

Well, I can’t tell you whether those inter-communal discussions bore much fruit, but if I were you, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople to reach an amicable arrangement of revolving leadership or some such compromise. There are too many issues of critical importance to the future of the planet, such as what kind of bread should be used in celebration of Holy Communion, and who did (or did not) sneak an extra word into the basic statement of Christian belief back in the 6th century. There is also the matter of a document used by Pope Leo IX in the 11th century to justify his claim to universal supremacy. The document was subsequently shown to have been a forgery, but this small inconvenience does not seem to have in any way undermined RC doctrine that their Pope is the latest in an unbroken line of succession going back to Jesus Christ himself.

Poe Francis taking a serious interest in the Quran

Pope Francis taking a serious interest in the Quran

Still, it was nice to see those two old guys making conciliatory noises, and rubbing shoulders with their Muslim cousins-in-faith in an Islamic place of worship. To be fair, Pope Francis seems to place less importance on anachronistic fancy dress costumes than his predecessors, and has made some public statements about inequalities of wealth distribution. This may have something to do with the fact that he hails from Argentina – the first non-European Pope, so they tell me, for 1,272 years. He is still, however, holding the line on abortion, artificial contraception and homosexuality – issues on which God Him/Herself apparently has strong views. We know this because the Pope has a direct hotline to God via St Peter and Jesus, and any time he speaks with the full authority of his office he is deemed to be infallible – by virtue of a dogma laid down by the First Vatican Council in 1870.

Well, it must be nice to know that, whenever you open your mouth, 1.214 billion people, or 17.5% of the world’s population are obliged to accept what you say as gospel truth. On the other hand, when a guy gets to be 78 years of age, there’s always a chance that he may blurt out something in his role as Pope which is really just an opinion of plain old Jorge Mario Bergoglio[1]. Something of the sort happened just the other day during a general audience at the Vatican when Pope Francis apparently suggested that humans might be reunited with their beloved pets in heaven. Other Popes before him have held out similar hope – but unfortunately it flies in the face of official RC doctrine that says animals cannot go to heaven because they have no souls.

Will you meet him again in Heaven? Would you want to?

Will you meet him again in Heaven? Would you want to?

As a result, Vatican officials have been at pains to point out that Father Jorge may occasionally say things that are not to be construed as official RC dogma – which opens the door for some confusion as to when the Pontiff’s pontifications are to be considered infallible and when not. The current Pope took the name Francis, on assuming office, after St Francis of Assisi, whom he is said to admire. The earlier Francis was a monk of the 12th/13th centuries best known as the patron saint of animals – but he is also said to have visited the sultan (which sultan?) in Egypt in 1219 with a view to converting him to Christianity and putting an end to the Crusades. Which may have been another reason for the current Francis’s visit to Turkey – but I haven’t heard that President Tayyip Erdoğan was influenced to that extent.

In the end, I’m not sure what shocks me most about these papal characters: their jaw-dropping self-righteous arrogance, or their determined literal-minded espousal of a belief system rooted in a culture that died out more than a thousand years ago. In fact, I question whether the Popes themselves truly believe the stuff they expect their flock to swallow without question. These are highly educated guys, remember, and yet they can, we assume with a straight face, make assertions like the following: We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.’

Our Francis, despite, we are told, bringing personal experience of Third World poverty to the Vatican See, continues to assert that Catholics who remarry after getting divorced cannot take Holy Communion. Just last year he excommunicated an Australian priest for deviating from official doctrine. Possibly his most outrageous claim would be ‘It is absurd to say you follow Jesus Christ but reject the Church.’ Of course, you can understand why he’d say it. You can’t have too many people thinking they can be Christians just by following the words and example of the founding prophet – otherwise all those cardinals, bishops and whatnot would be out of a job.

Has the world moved on since 381 CE?

Has the world moved on since 381 CE?

And the sad fact is, they probably deserve to be. Just take a look at so-called articles of faith on which that ‘Church’ is founded. After Christianity became, first accepted by, and shortly after, the official religion of the Roman Empire, seven ‘Ecumenical Councils’ were summoned to determine exactly what ‘orthodox’ Christians should believe. At various venues in the Byzantine Empire (now modern Turkey), bishops gathered together to lay down crucial precepts such as that Jesus Christ is ‘the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father. . . who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man,’ and that further, ‘he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; from thence he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead. . . We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.’

To tell you the honest truth, I used to wonder about some of that stuff when I was a little fellow sitting in church surrounded by devout adults mouthing it all dutifully and, I assumed, believing it in their hearts. What was wrong with me, I wondered. It was a great consolation when, after coming to live in Istanbul, I realised that most of the mumbo-jumbo had been formulated by committees of bishops and priests whose main purpose was to get rid of colleagues who refused to toe the party line. There were seven of these councils up to the end of the 8th century. Most present-day mainstream churches accept their decisions, and insist that their members affirm their belief out loud on regular occasions.

The Roman Catholic Church, after setting out on its own, subsequently held fourteen more such councils, the last of which, known as the Second Vatican Council, was held in 1962-5. Each of these councils added further conditions required for membership of the true Church:

  • The Fourth Lateran Council in 1213 formalised the doctrine of Transubstantiation – which states that the bread and wine used for Holy Communion is actually and mysteriously transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Much of the mystery seems to consist of the fact that to all appearances the bread and wine still looks pretty much like actual bread and wine. That same council also stipulated that Jews and Muslims should wear a special dress to enable them to be distinguished from Christians.
  • The First Vatican Council of 1870 was the one that laid down the doctrine of papal infallibility (mentioned above). The Holy Fathers might have done a lot more besides, except that the Franco-Prussian war intervened, and the Number One Catholic power of the day, and defender of the true faith, France, was given a serious beating. This opened the way for Italians to unite themselves into a country for the first time since Roman Imperial days, annex Rome and threaten the integrity of papal power. There was a brief time when it looked as though the Holy See might have to move to Germany for protection. Wouldn’t that have been interesting!

Well, at least Pope Francis seems to be doing his best to heal wounds and promote meaningful inter-communal dialogue. Prompted by a vague nostalgia for Christmases past, I took myself along to a carol service at the Anglican Christ Church in Beyoğlu/Taksim on Christmas Eve. I could have got over the sad lack of organ accompaniment or any kind of choral grandeur in the service, but the chaplain’s sermon was an appalling anti-Muslim tirade hiding behind platitudes about ‘ours’ being a religion of peace and love focusing on the birth of an innocent little baby – in contrast with the ‘barbarians’ who were now murdering Christians in the lands where ‘our’ faith was born. As I walked out of the building I was sorely tempted to call out something about Tony Blah’s conniving in the slaughter of innocent Iraqi babies not so very long ago – but I swallowed the words and left the faithful to get on with their business. Anyway, I remembered, their ‘Tone’ had subsequently converted to Roman Catholicism taking the burden of his sins with him.


[1] The Pope’s actual birth name

A Mosque in Munich – Book review

The following review appeared recently in the English language daily ‘Hürriyet Daily News’ – an interesting chapter in an on-going tale of woe: US encouragement of extremist groups for its own dubious purposes.

A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood’ by Ian Johnson (Mariner Books, 336 pages, $16)

2012005947William ARMSTRONG

Everyone knows by now about U.S. backing for the mujahedeen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union in the 1980s – Exhibit A for those shaking their heads at Washington’s foreign policy blunders in the Muslim world. Rather less widely known, at least until this book was written by former Wall Street Journal reporter Ian Johnson, was how that support had precedents at the start of the Cold War in post-World War II Europe, when U.S. and German intelligence jostled for influence over various Muslim groups as anti-communist instruments to undermine the USSR. With a cast including Nazis, the CIA, the German intelligence agency, the Muslim Brotherhood, and a host of flamboyant individual characters, the subject matter certainly makes for a spectacular title.

Johnson begins the tale back in the war, when the Nazis recruited proxy forces from the Muslims of Central Asia and the Caucasus to fight the Soviets on the Eastern Front. After hostilities ended, many ex-soldiers of these units found themselves living in West Germany, as did other Nazi collaborators from the Soviet Union’s Muslim regions and those who were able to flee Stalin’s Russia. Before long, the attention of post-war German and U.S. intelligence agencies would turn to these groups as intelligence sources and voices in the West’s propaganda war against the godless communist bloc behind the Iron Curtain.

The mosque in the book’s title is the Islamic Center of Munich, which started out as a humble community center for Central Asian Muslim refugees in Germany after the war. In subsequent years, however, it would develop to become a hub for U.S. and German governments and several prominent Muslims to jostle for influence at the center of Europe. The U.S. placed its bets with Said Ramadan, one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood exiled by the Nasser regime in Egypt, who is today better known as the father of prominent Swiss Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan. The elder Ramadan eventually emerged as the authority at the top of the mosque, which although very humble (it was originally located next to a rubbish tip) ended up becoming the controversial center of a wide range of Islamist activity across Europe, “a center of international Islamism” in Johnson’s words. Read the full article.

Cultural Amnesia – Islamic contributions to modern science and technology

It gives you some idea of the wealth of the Ottoman sultans that the stables of the old Topkapı Palace have been converted into a moderately large museum; not actually dedicated to equestrian pursuits, but housing Istanbul’s Museum of Science and Technology in Islam.

Professor Fuat Sezgin, specialist in Islamic science and technology

Professor Fuat Sezgin, specialist in Islamic science and technology

Well, you might think it’s a long name for a museum that won’t contain very much – but you’d be wrong. The MSTI (or in Turkish, İBTTM) features displays and models in fifteen scientific fields from a thousand years of high Islamic culture, beginning in the 7th century and ending at the start of the 17th when Western Europe took over as the centre of scientific research and discovery. Somewhat unusually for a museum in this country, the displays are fully and clearly explained by text in four languages, German, French and English as well as Turkish.

The linguistic competence, and in fact the foundation of the museum itself, are attributable to Professor Fuat Sezgin, professor emeritus at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. Professor Sezgin taught at Istanbul University until 1960 when he, along with many other intellectuals, was removed from office after the military coup in May of that year. Escaping the fate of the unfortunate prime minister at the time, Prof. Sezgin made his way to Germany where he embarked on a successful academic career specialising in the history of Arab-Islamic science, helping to found a museum in Frankfurt with replicas of historical scientific instruments, tools and maps.

Museum of Science and Technology in Islam, Istanbul

Museum of Science and Technology in Islam, Istanbul

Several government ministers and the mayor of Istanbul visited the German museum, and were so impressed that they decided to support the establishment of a similar institution in Turkey’s largest city. The old Topkapı Palace stables in the beautiful Gülhane Park had just been renovated, and the museum was opened in 2008 with models and displays related to astronomy, mathematics, geography, physics, chemistry and other sciences.

Turkey’s president, Tayyip Erdoğan has once again provoked mirth in some circles with his claim just the other day that Muslim sailors had discovered the American continent 300 years before Columbus. Well, some criticism is justified, given that it was actually Native Americans who stumbled upon the place around 12,000 years before Vikings, Portuguese or Muslims even thought about looking – and Americans have been giving thanks as usual this week for their support of the early colonists from England. Nevertheless, Mr Erdoğan has an ally in Professor Sezgin who claims that Islamic scholars had accurately calculated latitude and longitude, and created a partial map of the American continent by the early 15th century at the latest.

16th century Ottoman observatory, Istanbul

16th century Ottoman observatory, Istanbul

The Istanbul Museum has a wonderfully informative website, where you can find the text of Prof. Sezgin’s five-volume catalogue of the Frankfurt collection. It’s a challenging read, but the key ideas were summarized in an interview with the learned professor published in Turkish Airlines’ Skylife magazine last year.

Essentially, Sezgin believes that the traditional Western view of a ‘renaissance’ of classical knowledge taking place from the 14th to the 17th centuries is a distortion of the truth. He argues that the accepted idea of ‘The Renaissance’ was a deliberate obfuscation of the fact that Arab and other İslamic scholars had translated the works of classical philosophers from the early days of their conquests in the 7th century, assimilated their knowledge and developed it further. As the Arab Empire spread through the Middle East, North Africa and into the Iberian Peninsula, Prof. Sezgin claims, these advanced ideas were carried as far as Spain and Portugal, thus becoming available to Western Europeans. He goes on to suggest that Crusaders from Europe in the 12th century also came in contact with this knowledge and began bringing it back when they returned to their scientifically and technologically backward homes.

Musa al-Khwarizmi, inventor of algebra

Musa al-Khwarizmi, inventor of algebra

I checked out some of those volumes from the Frankfurt Museum catalogue, and for sure there is some thought-provoking material. Professor Sezgin makes the case that, as Muslim Arabs conquered cities that had been centres of learning in the Roman and Byzantine world, Damascus, Emessa, Aleppo, Antioch and Alexandria, they recognised the importance of the knowledge contained there, and took care to absorb it into the new world they were creating. The 9th century Abbasid caliph al-Mamun receives special mention for his encouragement and fostering of scholarship and research, particularly in the field of geography and map-making. He had astronomical observatories built in Baghdad and later Damascus. The 9th century Persian scholar Musa al-Khwarizmi is credited with bringing algebra (the word is derived from Arabic) and the decimal place-value number system to the West when his works were translated into Latin. The Latinised version of his name is the source of our word ‘algorithm’ and this Muslim gentleman is sometimes referred to as the father of computer science. Another Persian scholar al-Biruni in the 11th century made important contributions in many fields including mathematics and astronomy where he analysed and developed the ideas of Aristotle and Ptolemy.

Undoubtedly the contribution of these Islamic scholars to the blossoming of scientific knowledge in Western Europe was recognised by some at the time. The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his ‘Canterbury Tales’ in the 14th century when the Crusades were relatively fresh in memory, and ‘Christians’ were in the process of ‘reconquering’ the Iberian Peninsula. In his ‘Prologue’ to the Tales, Chaucer describes his physician thus:

Well read was he in Esculapius,
And Deiscorides, and in Rufus,
Hippocrates, and Hali, and Galen,
Serapion, Rhazes, and Avicen,
Averrhoes, Gilbert, and Constantine,
Bernard and Gatisden, and John Damascene.’

Of the poor scholar, subject of the Miller’s Tale, we are told, ‘His Almagest and other books great and small, his astrolabe, which he used in his art, and his counting-stones for calculating, all lay neatly by themselves on shelves at the head of his bed.’

Rhazes, in fact, is Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, a Persian Muslim physician, alchemist and chemist, philosopher, and scholar.

Avicen is Ibn Sina, 11th century Persian Muslim scholar, especially known for his writings on philosophy and medicine.

Averrhoes is Ibn Rushd a 12th century Andalusian Muslim polymath, master of philosophy, Islamic theology, law and jurisprudence, psychology, politics, music theory, and the sciences of medicine, astronomy, geography, mathematics, physics and celestial mechanics.

Almagest refers to Ptolemy’s work on astronomy that came to Europe from Greek via Arabic, and the name used here is Arabic[1].

13th century Mustansiriya University, Baghdad

13th century Mustansiriya University, Baghdad

So clearly Chaucer was well aware of the contribution these Muslim scholars had made to European scientific knowledge. One volume of Professor Sezgin’s Frankfurt catalogue deals with the ‘Reception and Assimilation of Islamic Science in the West’. He refers to the research of a 19th century French Arabist scholar, Ernest Renan, who postulated that, because Arabic was the language of educated Muslims, Christians and Jews in ‘Spain’ in the Middle Ages, all had access to the learning of the Islamic Golden Age. Jews in particular, for example the 12th century philosopher Maimonides (Musa ibn Maymun) carried this knowledge into Western Europe. Sezgin also refers to the work of a 20th century German scholar, Heinrich Schipperges who identified an Arab physician Constantinus Africanus. This gentleman, in the 10th century, converted to Christianity and became a monk in Salermo, Italy, bringing with him dozens of Arabic medical books which were subsequently translated into Latin. Medical texts written by those Arab scholars mentioned in the ‘Canterbury Tales’ were translated into Latin in Toledo in the 12th century.

Possibly Professor Sezgin’s most interesting suggestion is that one of the major reasons for the sudden emergence of Spain and Portugal as leaders in the European ocean-going race and exploration of the New World was their fortuitous inheritance of the astronomical, geographical and mathematical knowledge of the Muslim scientists as they ‘reconquered’ the Iberian Peninsula in the 14th and 15th centuries. It has also been suggested that the inquisitorial clearing out of Muslims and Jews that ended in Castille in 1614 had a part to play in the fall from prominence of those two early starters in European imperialism.

16th century European image - 'A Moor of Arabia'

16th century European image – ‘A Moor of Arabia’

Wikipedia’s entry on Islamic architecture lists twenty-four prominent buildings from the ‘Moorish’ period still to be seen in present-day Spain, among them the Alhambra Palace in Granada, the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba and the Alcazar of Seville. The use of that word ‘Moorish’ is one I never had cause to question before, but there does seem to be some confusion in its origins. As far as I can tell, it is a rendering into English of the Latin word ‘Mauri’, referring to the inhabitants of North Africa and deriving from the Greek word meaning ‘black’. Once the word arrived in English (and other European languages) it appears to have been used pretty indiscriminately to refer to black Africans, Arabs, Muslims, and pretty much anyone who was non-Aryan and non-Christian. So it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to deduce that referring to the Arab-Muslim culture that ruled the Iberian Peninsula for the best part of 700 years as ‘Moorish’ was/is a trifle perverse and demeaning. Why would anyone want to do that? And why would you not want to credit the sources of your new scientific discoveries? And then there is a third question that Professor Sezgin raises: If the Muslims were so advanced in the history of science, why are they so far behind now?

Let’s take the last question first, since it clearly has a bearing on the first two. What happened to this Islamic civilisation that had been supposedly so advanced? The first suggestion that Sezgin offers is the Crusader wars that lasted for nearly two hundred years beginning at the end of the 11th century. Although both sides had losses and victories, in the end it was the Europeans who were the main beneficiaries, in terms of the economic damage they inflicted on Muslim society, the negative impact the wars had on the development of science and technology in the East, and the fact that the flow of knowledge was essentially one-way, from East to West. Allied to this was the invasion of the Mongols in the 13th century, whose conquests extended through Persia, Anatolia and as far as Eastern Europe with the destruction of many centres of culture and learning, following so soon after the deleterious effects of the Crusades.

While it is true that the Ottomans picked up the baton of Islamic culture, forging a powerful empire from the 14th century, Sezgin suggests that they were always fighting a losing battle. Islam’s loss of the Iberian Peninsula and the takeover of scientific and technological know-how by the Spanish and Portuguese meant that those two countries were in a position to round Africa into the Indian Ocean and cross the Atlantic to the American continent. The result was that the centre of geo-political power shifted and Western Europe gained advantages which the Ottomans could never overcome, despite occasional forays in that direction.


Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, Spain

That this shift in the balance of power began with the Portuguese and their gaining control of the Indian Ocean was no accident, according to Professor Sezgin. He notes that Portugal had been under Arab rule for nearly 400 years. Western sources generally claim that Bartolomeu Dias was the first European to round the Cape of Good Hope and reach the Indian Ocean. Sezgin points out, however, that Phoenician sailors had very likely achieved the same feat in the 6th century BCE, and that there was a trade route between Morocco and China in Islamic times. For their navigational, shipbuilding and sea-faring skills, the professor suggests, the Portuguese were indebted to the earlier work of their Arab-Islamic rulers. These skills and knowledge subsequently found their way to the rest of Europe which gradually rose to prominence and eventual superiority over the Muslim World.

Why, however, the West is generally so reluctant to give credit for the true sources of their ‘renaissance’ is another question. In fact, it is not so much that the truth is not known. As mentioned above, Geoffrey Chaucer was certainly aware of the importance of Islamic scholars in bringing their knowledge and that of the ‘Ancients’ to the West – and assuredly this awareness was not his alone. The problem seems to be more that general histories dealing with the Renaissance in Europe and the advancement of science and technology tend to gloss over the key importance of Islamic sources, and make a direct connection with Ancient classical scholars, insisting often that the rediscovery took place in Italy.

Sezgin tactfully refrains from seeking explanations, merely noting that it happened. In the interests of natural justice, we may wish to go further. Possibly the reason for our cultural amnesia lies in the centuries of conflict between Western ‘Christendom’ and the ‘East’ – including the Orthodox Byzantines. The self-evident superiority of those eastern cultures in wealth, civilization, arts and sciences created envy and a need to conquer and belittle their achievements. When the West finally began to assert military and technological dominance, it suited their new self-image to erase that inconvenient and embarrassing period from their collective memory. It wouldn’t be the only instance in history where such a deliberate ‘forgetting’ had been perpetrated.


[1] With acknowledgements to: and