How Islamic inventors changed the world
March 10, 2006 8:11 PM   Subscribe

From coffee to cheques and the three-course meal, the Muslim world has given us many innovations that we take for granted in daily life. As a new exhibition opens, Paul Vallely nominates 20 of the most influential- and identifies the men of genius behind them via The Independent
posted by infini (30 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
What a perfect antidote to some of the opinions expressed in this post.
posted by slickvaguely at 8:35 PM on March 10, 2006

What happened to the Muslim world? Not to imply there are no longer any great Muslim thinkers, inventers, or scientists, but it seems that those great traditions have atrophied. It is a shame, because as this post demonstrates, so many things and concepts derive from Muslims. Not to mention their preservation of the West's own great thinkers through Avicenna and Averroes.
posted by Falconetti at 8:40 PM on March 10, 2006

God bless those Muslims.
Great stuff, thanks!
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:46 PM on March 10, 2006

I'm pretty sure windmills (#11), pointed arches (#9), accurate calculation of the (spherical) earth's radius (#18), and pleasure gardens (#20) all long predate Mohammed (and, for that matter, Jesus), so that they can't very well be attributed to 'Islamic Inventors.'
posted by kickingtheground at 9:14 PM on March 10, 2006

So weird the impulse to glorify all things muslim lately. Is it a way of providing balance against what seems to be the dominant message of western culture--something anti muslim about our era? Or is it a testament to the contrariness of metafilterians?
posted by mert at 9:28 PM on March 10, 2006

Here's something interesting in the NY Times about the MF post of a few days ago. Apparently, the Syrian psychiatrist who protested Islamic extremism on Al Jazeera a few weeks ago has gotten some flack.
posted by mert at 10:04 PM on March 10, 2006

Falconetti, from the (very little) I've read on the subject, the jury is still out on precisely why the sciences in the Islamic world went into decline. Various factors suggested include the disruptions caused by the Mongol invasions, the erosion of agriculture and irrigation systems (hence economic decline and limited patronage), the anti-intellectual mysticism promoted by certain philosophers, the corrosive effect on scientific inquiry of an increasingly literal belief in the Quran (which sounds ominously familiar) ... I've heard suggested a sort of cultural inferiority complex that caused the Islamic world to retreat into a more introspective religiosity after the European world began to outpace them in science (although the Europeans were building largely on ideas originally generated in the Islamic world) -- All of which may or may not be true. I don't really have the background to comment authoritatively on any of it, just forwarding a few tidbits I've encountered.
posted by bcveen at 10:38 PM on March 10, 2006

mert: Thanks, it helped me update the Wafa Sultan article I created at Wikipedia.

No question there are some parochial attitudes expressed about Arab or Muslim capabilities which are simply ridiculous if you look at the heritage of knowledge from that region. But also unquestionably today the Arab world is falling behind faster than it's catching up. The primary reason is pretty obviously a brutal combination of poverty and lack of formal education (for all but a thin elite), and most of these countries lack the raw resources for any type of industry that would make broad technical progress and a true middle-class easily possible. Israel has obviously bucked the inherent regional limitations, while other countries awash in oil money have failed to create economies that will outlast the eventual end of the energy markets -- Dubai being a notable exception.

Moving beyond the Arab world, we have Turkey, which could almost be a European country if its legal system and human rights were not an embarassment, Iran, which is much more modern than most Americans can ever comprehend (although still with vast regions of medieval poverty), is trying to show that a theocracy is no barrier to progress (a variant of the Chinese gambit). Pakistan has a microscopic Westernized elite, and teeming millions of ungovernable tribal fundamentalists. India, Indonesia and Malaysia are faring much better, even with the same anchorweight of expansive poverty. So, it isn't Islam per se by any means. Regardless it represents a problem, a modern-day mudsill issue. Optimistically it will solve itself, but if it doesn't somebody's theory is probably going to come true. Pragmatically we should be discussing what we can do to solve it short of a Long War.

For example, I proposed nudging the needed democratization of the Arab world along by making sure that there's an Arabic translation of Saul Alinsky. I have no idea whether there is one, or whether a political movement sparked by the writings of Jew would have any traction within any Islamic society. But if it were to happen, it could be the most amazing thing.
posted by dhartung at 11:24 PM on March 10, 2006

That many stars have non-Latin names is due to Arab astronomers.
posted by Cranberry at 11:33 PM on March 10, 2006

Thanks for mentioning Saul Alinsky: "Rules for Radicals" is one of the greatest political books ever. And what a great idea to translate it into Arabic.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:33 PM on March 10, 2006

dhartung : "I proposed nudging the needed democratization of the Arab world along by making sure that there's an Arabic translation of Saul Alinsky."

You could make a request.
posted by Gyan at 12:33 AM on March 11, 2006

I think Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi rates better than #14. But not better than coffee as #1.
posted by A dead Quaker at 1:29 AM on March 11, 2006

Muslim world has given us many innovations

Burqas and Turbans for instance. See also: suicide bombers. Great culture ya got there.*

*Not that we can say much here in the US - we're at the very least responsible for the genocide of the Native Americans... ah well.
posted by wfrgms at 1:48 AM on March 11, 2006

Don't forget about slavery and the slave trade, atomic bombs, importing crack into the ghetto, lynching, Jim Crow, assassination of democratically elected leaders, Tuskegee experiments, etc.
posted by cell divide at 2:10 AM on March 11, 2006

Abbas ibn Firnas made several attempts to construct a flying machine. ... In 875, aged 70, having perfected a machine of silk and eagles' feathers he tried again, jumping from a mountain. He flew to a significant height and stayed aloft for ten minutes but crashed on landing...

Ah, yes, that's because they *never* practice the landing.
posted by sour cream at 2:26 AM on March 11, 2006

In order to reason the demise of an empire, or nation, one has to be educated in the best that the empire or nation produced. I dont see such an effort as a counterbalance for all the negativity these days. I see it as an effort by practical people to convince the remnants of the empire that there was a bright past and something like this can be achieved again. On the other hand it needs to be highlighted that the role of the Muslim scientists was and is more than just being the bridge between two seperate eras.
posted by adnanbwp at 2:48 AM on March 11, 2006

Why does everything here have to devolve into some kind of pissing contest? It's quite unhelpful and probably dysfunctional.

Comparative analysis is supposed to be objective.
posted by gsb at 3:09 AM on March 11, 2006

I always liked how al-Khwarizmi gave us the word algorithm. Someone screwed up their transliteration there...
posted by Orange Goblin at 3:26 AM on March 11, 2006

Why does everything here have to devolve into some kind of pissing contest?

Yes, it's a pity. Can't we just stay OT about what infini posted - e.g. history, science, technology? I'm pretty sick of all the "Psst - wanna hear something about Muslims" derailing that goes on. It's perfectly similar in form to anti-semitism. There's plenty of political threads where you can drag that stuff into.
posted by carter at 6:25 AM on March 11, 2006

Burqas and Turbans for instance. See also: suicide bombers. Great culture ya got there.*

I think you'll find suicide bombing as a political tool first originated with the Russians when Czar Alexander II was assinated. The Japanese Kamikaze pilots also spring to mind as earlier examples. Oddly enough, it could be argued that the Japanese really kicked it off as the JRA (first suicide attackers in Israel) inducted Hizbollah et al in these tactics. Let's hear it for Japanese "culture"? Of course, you can go even further back with the concept of dying and taking out more of the enemy with instances such as the Templar knights on Crusade. Funny.

With respect to the turban, I think you'll find that it's a whole lot older than you may think: see exodus and the description of Moses for an example - the hebrew is migba'ah as a reference to the headdress they wore wrapped around their head, like the imamah of some muslim scholars today. Of course, most arabs choose to don the kaffiyah instead (checked cloth on the head). Works well in the climate.

The burqa also goes back a bit further - for example, it can be seen amongst the Assyrians and their harems. It was also prevalent in the Byzantine empire before it spread into the arab world.

History is fun :)
posted by Mossy at 6:29 AM on March 11, 2006

Sorry, and I just added to the noise. D'oh. But thanks for the post, infini!

As atonement, here's a nice arab-english loan word site. And another one.
posted by carter at 6:31 AM on March 11, 2006

Recent post:
posted by Mossy at 6:43 AM on March 11, 2006

all (okay many) of the "al" words come from the arabic:

al... hambra?

Here's a really really old fight between me and miguel cardoso about the contribution of the moor's to Spain (and all of these inventions / contributions were transfered from Spain to the rest of Europe). Miss you migs!
posted by zpousman at 7:40 AM on March 11, 2006

What happened to the Muslim world?

Exactly the same thing that's happening to western Christianity: distrust of science, anti-intellectualism, and a desire to return to simpler times. If we continue the current trends, we'll end up the same way.
posted by mike3k at 8:31 AM on March 11, 2006

Actually, Mike3k, I think economic collapse started to happen for a variety of reasons, which made distrust of science, etc. and a return to 'old school' religion grow... in other words, they helped each other.

al... hambra?

It comes from Al Hamra (the red one) as the stones look(ed) red.
posted by cell divide at 8:46 AM on March 11, 2006

Don't forget about slavery and the slave trade, atomic bombs, importing crack into the ghetto, lynching, Jim Crow, assassination of democratically elected leaders, Tuskegee experiments, etc.

And the Corporation. But I digress.
posted by iamck at 9:43 AM on March 11, 2006

My understanding is that coffee is thought to have been first brewed (in the Red Sea region, either on the African or Arab side) at a time that would have been before Mohammed was even born, or at least before he is said to have received his first revelation. Wouldn't that imply that the "invention" was a non-Islamic one? Given the prevalence of Christianity in the region at the time, couldn't the first coffee drinkers have even been Christians - or, perish the thought - Jews?

This page furthermore states that after coffee had become popular some Islamic rulers actually outlawed it.
posted by shoos at 4:35 PM on March 11, 2006

After some more reading, it seems that the only thing known for certain about the origin of coffee is that it was in some form first consumed in Ethiopia, most likely during or before the 6th century, a time when the kingdom was Christian. Coffee may have been introduced to Arabia during the Ethiopian occupation of Yemen in 525-575. Islam came to Yemen around 630.
posted by shoos at 5:49 PM on March 11, 2006

In the 9th century, a Muslim businessman could cash a cheque in China drawn on his bank in Baghdad.

It's always staggering to find out about things like this.
posted by kenko at 9:51 PM on March 11, 2006

MY view on stuff like this is usually, who cares what the religion of the guy was who invented these things, the important thing is that they came into being.

Amartya Sen makes a very important point in his latest book The Argumentative Indian,

There is an odd dichotomy in the way in which Western and non Western ideas and scholarship are currently comprehended, with a tendency to attribute a predominant role to religiosity in interpreting the works of non Western intellectuals who had secular interests along with strong religious beliefs. It is, for example, not assumed that, say, Isaac Newton's scientific work must be understood in primarily Christian terms (even though he had Christian beliefs), nor presumed that his contributions to worldly knowledge must somehow be interpreted in the light of his deep interest in mysticism [...] In contrast, when it comes to non Western cultures, religious reductionism tends to exert a gripping influence.
posted by infini at 1:40 AM on March 12, 2006

« Older Desktop Earth 2.0   |   Rejoice, rejoice greatly! Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments