Tuesday, January 26, 2016

1001 Inventions is a travelling exhibit of 1001 scientific inventions and discoveries allegedly made in the Islamic world down the ages.  Much hyped, and praised by various political leaders as well as Prince Charles, it has been on temporary display at a range of the world’s most prestigious science museums, including the National Geographic Museum in London and the Science Museum in the same city, the New York Hall of Science, and the California Science Center (where it was opened by Hillary Clinton).  Since 2005 some 150,000,000 people around the world have viewed it. 

Apart from the so-called “Arabic numerals” in universal use today (including the supremely important device of the zero, unknown to the Greeks and Romans), that Muslims produced any significant invention or discovery must surprise the average visitor to the exhibit.   The total of 1001, a number that evokes the like number of fantasies comprising The Arabian Nights, such as Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, must astound, and suitably impress, them. (I know it has impressed and delighted anti-Israel leftists, who’ve triumphantly trumpeted the inventions on social media.)

However, “Arabic numerals” were actually invented in India around 500 AD (or CE if you will),  before Mohammed was born and well before he made his impact.  There seems to be a much stronger claim to be made about the Islamic origin of algebra, a term coined by the great Baghdad-based mathematician Al-Khwarizmi around 800 AD; nevertheless, there are indications that this remarkable man of Persian family may have been of Zoroastrian background. 

Beyond this, however, even the most erudite of visitors to the exhibit must surely have been hard-pressed to name a single invention or discovery made by a Muslim scholar or inventor before viewing that collection of 1001.

Although there are over one billion Muslims in the world, only three Muslims have won a Nobel Prize for science – a Pakistani, an Egyptian American, and a Turk.  By contrast, over 150 Jews have done so.  Virtually all of the world’s greatest inventions – from the telescope, the microscope, and the steam engine to the computer – were created by Europeans or persons of European descent outside Europe, especially in the United States.  It’s safe to say that 95 per cent of the world’s significant inventions of the last 1000 years were devised by such persons, with nearly all the rest originating in China (including gunpowder).

The Islamic contribution to the list of great inventions is in all likelihood very strictly limited.
So how does one go about putting together an exhibit of 1001 Muslim inventions?  The blunt answer is “by sleight of hand,” as many reviewers of this farcical exhibit have in effect pointed out [see some examples cited at the end of this account https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1001_Inventions].

The exhibit claims that Muslims invented the camera.  This, of course, is pure malarkey.  The first photograph was taken about 1826 by the Frenchman Nicéphore Niépce.  By “camera” the exhibit means a camera obscura, a box with a hole in it on which an image is projected.  But even here the exhibit tells whoppers, since the camera obscura was known to the ancient Chinese and Greeks, and was described by Aristotle and Euclid. 

Visitors to the exhibit learn that “the first person who tried to fly” was Abbas ibn Firnas, who “leapt from the minaret of the Great Mosque in Cordoba” with some kind of primitive kite-like glider.  Yet the concept of human flight had occurred to the ancient Greeks, as seen in their legend of Icarus, who tried the same thing 2000 years earlier than ibn Firnas with unfortunate results.

And so on.

These tales about Islamic inventions are reminiscent, of course, of similar claims made under Stalin as to how Russians invented everything, from the airplane to baseball.

The exhibit was accompanied by a propagandistic film “produced in association with the Jameel Foundation” starring the great actor Sir Ben Kingsley (who is not a Muslim though of part-Muslim descent).  (There’s a copy on YouTube marked “Not for Reproduction”.) Presumably Sir Ben, who plays a magical Muslim inventor wowing a group of British schoolchildren with his insights into the wonders wrought by “Muslim civilisation,” doesn’t work for free, and this raises the question of just who paid for an exhibit which toured the world.  Its website [http://www.1001inventions.com/] includes a long list of “partners and collaborators,” including the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, Saudi Arabia; the Abu Dhabi Education Council; and the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science.  Who actually signed the cheques remains, however, opaque.

An even more basis question is: Why is this codswallop of an exhibit, with its obvious political agenda, displayed by any reputable institution?

Political correctness?

Or does money talk?

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