A Golden Age in Science, Full of Light and Shadow
Published: December 9, 2010
“Take a look,” Ben Kingsley says, dropping an ancient tome before three British students as if he were teaching the Dark Arts at Hogwarts. “Take a look,” he tells them, “if you dare.”
The book magically opens, releasing a cyclone of glittering ghosts. And Mr. Kingsley — who here portrays a librarian trying to get bored students interested in what their teacher calls the “Dark Ages” — is transformed into the turbaned al-Jazari: 12th-century inventor, mechanical engineer, visionary. “Welcome to the Dark Ages!” he declares, “or as it should be known, the Golden Ages!”
After he takes the students “from darkness into light” in this introductory film, we are off and running through “1001 Inventions,” at the New York Hall of Science in Queens. The exhibition’s name invokes the Eastern exoticism of Scheherazade, but the show is in earnest about its claims.
There aren’t 1,001 inventions on display, but those that are, along with the ideas described, are meant to show that the Western Dark Ages really were a Golden Age of Islam: a thousand years, in the show’s reckoning, that lasted into the 17th century. During that era, the exhibition asserts, Muslim scientists and inventors, living in empires reaching from Spain to China, anticipated the innovations of the modern world.
There are serious problems with this exhibition, but this has had no effect on its international acclaim. Conceived by a mechanical engineer, Salim T. S. al-Hassani, it began on a smaller scale touring British cities. It expanded into its current form at the London Science Museum this year, attracting 400,000 visitors, according to the show’s Web site. And its lavish companion book, “Muslim Heritage in Our World,” has won plaudits.
Kiosks are arranged here in an 8,000-square-foot space, their explanations, interactive displays, and videos examining seven “zones”: Home, School, Market, Hospital, Town, World, Universe. The show is also family friendly. A 20-foot-high reproduction of al-Jazari’s mechanical water clock welcomes visitors, its base an elephant and its crown a phoenix; unfortunately it is not really a replica — it operates without the water mechanism — but its playful monumentalism intrigues. And while some interactive exhibits are stilted, an astronomy display lets you reach toward a screen of the night sky like a deity, your gestures gliding a constellation into its proper place.
Throughout, the exhibition pays tribute to an important scientific tradition not commonly familiar, stocked with extraordinary technological creativity and scholarly enterprise. From 10th-century Spain we read of al-Zahrawi, author of an encyclopedic treatise on surgery. From 10th-century Baghdad we find al-Haytham, whose explorations of optics helped lay the foundations for Newton’s discoveries. We learn of advances in medical care, mathematics, astronomy and architecture.
As it turns out, though, the account requires extensive qualification. Had we learned more about scientific principles, had we been given sober assessments of, say, how 10th-century science developed, had a scholarly perspective been more evident — had we, in other words, been ushered into this world in a way once expected from science museums — the show could have been far more powerful.
Instead, it is as manipulative as it is illuminating. “1001 Inventions,” we are told in the literature, “is a nonreligious and non-political project.” But it actually is a little bit religious and considerably political.
It is less a typical science exhibition than a typical “identity” exhibition. It was created by the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilization in London, whose goal is “to popularize, spread and promote an accurate account of Muslim Heritage and its contribution.” The show also tries to “instill confidence” and provide positive “role models” for young Muslims, as Mr. Hassani puts it in the book. And it is part of a “global educational initiative” that includes extensive classroom materials.
The promotional goal is evident in every display. The repeated suggestion is that Muslim scientists made discoveries later attributed to Westerners and that many Western institutions were shaped by Muslim contributions.
The exhibition, though, wildly overdoes it. First, it creates a straw man, reviving the notion, now defunct, of the Dark Ages. Then it overstates the neglect of Muslim science, which has, to the contrary, long been cited in Western scholarship. It also expands the Golden Age of Islam to a millennium, though the bright years were once associated with just portions of the Abbasid Caliphate, which itself lasted for about 500 years, from the eighth century to 1258. The show’s inflated ambitions make it difficult to separate error from exaggeration, and implication from fact.
Consider one label: “Setting the Story Straight.” We read: “For many centuries, English medic William Harvey took the prize as the first person to work out how our blood circulates.” But “what nobody knew” was that the “heart and lungs’ role in blood flow” was figured out by Ibn al-Nafis, the 13th-century physician. And yes, al-Nafis’s impressive work on pulmonary circulation apparently fell into oblivion until 1924. But Harvey’s 17th-century work was more complete; it was a theory of the entire circulatory system. So while neglect is clear, differences should be as well.
But the exhibition even seems to expand its claim. Historians, the label continues, have recently found evidence that Ibn al-Nafis’s Arabic text “may have been translated into Latin, paving the way to suppose that it might have indirectly influenced” Harvey’s work. The “may have,” the “suppose,” the “might have” and the “indirectly” reflect an overwhelming impulse to affirm what cannot be proved.
Sometimes Muslim precedence is suggested with even vaguer assertions. We read that Ibn Sina, in the 11th century, speculated about geological formations, “ideas that were developed, perhaps independently, by geologist James Hutton in the 18th century.” Why “perhaps independently”? Is there any evidence of influence? Are the analyses comparable? How? Nothing is clear other than a vague sense of wrongful neglect.
Some assertions go well beyond the evidence. Hovering above the show is a glider grasped by a ninth-century inventor from Cordoba, Abbas ibn Firnas, “the first person to have actually tried” to fly. But that notion is based on a source that relied on ibn Firnas’s mention in a ninth-century poem. It also ignores the historian Joseph Needham’s description of Chinese attempts as early as the first century. The model of the flying machine is pure speculation.
And some claims are simply incorrect: catgut was used in surgical sutures by Galen in the second century, long before al-Zahrawi (named here as its pioneer).
The exhibition also dutifully praises the multicultural aspect of this Golden Age while actually undercutting it. Major cultures of the first millennium (China, India, Byzantium) are mentioned only to affirm the weightier significance of Muslim contributions. And though we read that people “of many faiths worked together” in the Golden Age, we don’t learn much about them.
Religious affiliation actually seems far more important here than is acknowledged, keeping some figures out and ushering others in. Christian Arab contributions go unheralded, but the 15th-century Chinese explorer Zheng He, a Muslim, is celebrated though he has no deep connection to Golden Age cultures.
And finally we never learn much about the role of Islam itself. Universities, we read, were affiliated with mosques. Did that affect scientific inquiry or the status of non-Muslim scientists? Did the religious regime have any impact on the ultimate failure of the transmission and expansion of scientific knowledge? And given the high cost of any golden age, isn’t it necessary to give some account of this civilization’s extensive slave trade?
Instead of expanding the perspective, the exhibition reduces it to caricature, showing Muslim culture rising out of a shadowy past to attain glories later misappropriated by Western epigones. Left unexplored too is how this tradition ended, leading to a long eclipse of science in Muslim lands. There is only a recurring hint of injustices done.
The paradox is that this narrative is not only questionable but also unnecessary. An exhibition about scientific achievements during the Abbasid Caliphate could be remarkable if approached with curatorial perspective. Why then, the indulgence here?
Perhaps because one tendency in the West, particularly after 9/11, has been to answer Muslim accusations of injustice (and even real attacks) with an exaggerated declaration of regard. It is guiltily offered as if in embarrassed compensation, inspired by a desire not to appear to tar Islam with the fervent claims made by its most violent adherents.
Science museums have shared that impulse. An Imax film at the Boston Museum of Science is almost a commercial travelogue about science’s future in Saudi Arabia; and the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey has presented a traveling exhibition about Muslim inventions, that, like this one, mixed fascinating information with promotional overstatement.
What is peculiar too is that the current Hall of Science show presumes a long neglect of Muslim innovations, but try finding anything comparable about Western discoveries for American students. Where is a systematic historical survey of the West’s great ideas and inventions in contemporary science museums, many of which now seem to have very different preoccupations?
In the meantime, in the interest of mutual understanding, some such show about Western science might perhaps be mounted in Riyadh or Tehran, just as this one was in London. Wouldn’t that be a tale worthy of Scheherazade? It might begin: “Take a look, if you dare.”