Reinventing Islam’s Golden Age? (updated)

When we look at how the media writes about religion, we focus on news stories. But that’s only one of the ways the mainstream media discuss religion, of course. Even apart from the op-ed page — which we tend to stay away from unless there’s some breaking news there — there are photos, graphs, art reviews, advice columns and so on.

Last week, the New York Times reviewed “1001 Inventions,” which highlights Muslim contributions to science. It’s currently at the New York Hall of Science and will be traveling to Los Angeles and Washington. Edward Rothstein wrote a fascinating review that ended up being one of the most judicial discussions of Islam that I’ve seen in that paper. The exhibit is designed to show that the Western Dark Ages were a Golden Age in Islam. He writes that the exhibit has serious problems but that this has had no effect on its international acclaim, having had wildly successful showings in British Cities before being expanded to its current form at the London Science Museum

The review includes many technical details and praises various aspects of the exhibition. But, the reviewer writes, the perspective of the exhibit has some serious flaws. Billed as a nonreligious and nonpolitical project, the reviewer notes that 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 aims to “instill confidence” and provide positive “role models” for young Muslims, and is part of a global education initiative complete with 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.

He gives multiple examples. For instance, it conflates English medic William Harvey’s discovery of how blood circulates with physician Ibn al-Nafis’ figuring out the role of the heart and lungs in blood flow. While it’s true that al-Nafi’s 13th-century work fell into oblivion until 1924, Harvey’s 17th-century work was more complete, explaining the entire circulatory system. A few others:

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 review, at this point, gets even tougher. Another critique is how religious affiliation is weighted more heavily than anything else. So Christian Arabs go unheralded while Chinese Muslims with virtually no connection to the “Golden Age” are celebrated. And the exhibit doesn’t address whether Islam itself had anything to do with scientific inquiry or the transmission and expansion of scientific knowledge. How the “Golden Age” of discovery ended is left unaddressed, except for a hint of widespread external injustice. The reviewer says this approach isn’t just faulty but unnecessary and that a straightforward, curatorial approach to scientific achievements during the Abbasid Caliphate would be remarkable. So why was it done?:

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.

He writes that science museums have shared that impulse, noting an Imax film about science’s future in Saudi Arabia that’s being shown at Boston Museum of Science and New Jersey’s Liberty Science Center exhibit about Muslim inventions. The reviewer ends with a suggestion that American students might need to learn a systematic historical survey of the West’s great ideas and inventions in contemporary science museums. And, he suggests, Riyadh or Tehran might be overdue for a museum exhibit on Western science.

But it was that last excerpted paragraph that stuck with me throughout the week. I don’t know what the reviewer meant by “the West” but are the media included in his indictment? Do media outlets tout the positive in Islam and minimize the negative? Does that explain some of the weaknesses in coverage of Islam?

UPDATE: Readers may also be interested in the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilization’s response to the review.

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  • Ben

    I think we as a culture in America are very sensitive about offending minorities. We spent so many years claiming that we did everything and made everything that now we’re very careful to make sure every people group gets their due credit. Sometimes we over-react and give too much credit, to the point of fiction.

    The goal of any educational project should be objectivity. While this is usually impossible to do completely, as much accuracy as possible should be obtained.

    I think media outlets realize how much U.S. money is tied up in Arab states and how shaky our relationship is with many of them, and are nervous about creating an issue.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    According to many books I have read over the years, a great deal of Islamic progress was carried out by Christians in conquered countries who “converted” (some quite reluctantly) to Islam. Then, as countries and Middle Eastern cultures became more and more Islamified, a descent into backwardness became the norm.
    As for the words “Dark Ages.” Some historians claim that that label was created at the time of the Protestant Reformation as part of the polemic to smear the Catholic Church.
    Two very recent books by reputable historical researchers explode the “Dark Ages” concept.
    The first is “From Barbarians to Angels” by Peter S. Wells professor of archaeology at the University of Minnesota. He convincingly demonstrates that the so-called Dark Ages were not “dark” at all.
    The second book is “The Abacus And The Cross” by Nancy Marie Brown, an accomplished, award-winning professional writer on science topics. Her book, in part, argues that the popular picture of the so-called Dark Ages is wrong. The book centers on the life of the “Scientist” Pope Sylvester II (Gerbert of Aurillac)(945-1003 A.D.)

  • Mollie

    Please focus discussion on the media lessons and angles.

  • Chip

    “being one of the most judicial discussions of Islam . . .”


    Don’t you mean ‘judicious’?

  • Mollie


    I actually meant judicial, in terms of making judgments; critical or being discriminating.

    I wanted to use the word “critical” but so often people think of that word in negative terms.

  • Chip


    You might be interested in how the Foundation for Science Technology and Civilization responded to the NYTimes review of 1001 Inventions.

  • Mollie


    I am — thank you. I also added the link to the above post.

  • Dave G.

    Do media outlets tout the positive in Islam and minimize the negative? Does that explain some of the weaknesses in coverage of Islam?

    Short answer: yes. And for the record, it’s not just media outlets, though I understand that’s the subject of this post.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Sometimes I forget to note the specific part(s) of a posting I am writing about to support or criticize.
    The media seems to constantly refer to the late First Millenium as “The Dark Ages.” But Edward Rothstein in his story got it exactly right: “…the notion, now defunct, of the Dark Ages.”
    I find it encouraging that some media writers do get some of the latest research info into their stories and don’t always rely on inaccurate historical cliches

  • Dave G.

    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.

    Probably not confined to just Islam.

  • Brendan

    What a great review by the NYT, and excellent review of that review here at GR! I’d be astonished to see any similarly biased celebration of “Western” inventions, much less “Christian” inventions (though I’d be loath to patronize such propaganda).

    To comment on Muslim Heritage/FSTC’s response to the NYT review: It just reinforces the NYT criticism that it makes unwarranted claims, opening up with attacks it doesn’t even attempt to elaborate on, much less prove, such as “The article is wrapped in a conceptual framework which is hostile and denigrating”. What conceptual framework? How is it denigrating? No answers. And I felt uneasy by how often they repeated the author’s last name, “Mr. Rothstein” – does Rothstein’s clearly Jewish heritage have anything to do with the vitriol directed at him? That’s a serious suggestion, but I figure when we’re dealing with Islamic culture, it may not be a bad idea to consider possible biases both ways between Jewish people and Muslims. It’s just as possible Mr. Rothstein was biased against the FSTC, but he was a whole lot more civil and restrained in his criticism of the FSTC than the FSTC was of him.

    Religio-cultural considerations aside, the FSTC response is obnoxiously ad-hominem and vicious. “Mr. Rothstein, who erroneously imagines himself an expert” and “by seeking definitive affirmations, Mr Rothstein demonstrates he is not familiar with the rigorous work of historians” are both unjustified ad-hominems designed to advance one of their chief narratives: any statement, however tentative, made by an historian takes on the authority of the gods against the worthless opinions of mere mortal (a New York Times reporter). In other words: because “we went through a rigorous critical review by the scholars of the prestigious Science Museum in London”, a mere reporter can’t question us. An interesting strategy: puff up the egos of science historians and stomp on reporters. How do you reporters in the crowd like that?

    FSTC also fails to admit clear, irrefutable wrong that got through the “rigorous critical review”. Point #3 clearly demonstrates this: there they responded to the NYT criticism of the claim that “Abbas ibn Firnas [was] ‘the first person to have actually tried’ to fly.” As the NYT author noted, “that notion is based on a source that relied on ibn Firnas’s mention in a ninth-century poem” and “ignores the historian Joseph Needham’s description of Chinese attempts as early as the first century.”

    Here’s how FSTC responds: “If we seemed to neglect previous instances of early attempts of flight in the Chinese heritage, this is certainly due to an oversight. Our intent is not to deny the contribution of earlier civilisations.”
    Wait a minute – “If we seemed”… “an oversight”… “our intent”… I don’t see any admission of wrong, do you? Nor is there any attempt to reconcile this with their earlier statement that because “[e]very word written on the panels, every fact, every image and every exhibit was passed through the prism of critical peer-review and verification”, they had the right to express outrage that they “are accused of being approximate and even wrong in presenting historical facts.” Hmmm…

    So can they (FSTC) admit a clear and simple mistake, even if that mistake was missed by “a rigorous critical review by the scholars of the prestigious Science Museum in London” but noted by one intellectually curious NYT reporter? No chance. Instead, they confidently follow up their “if we seemed… oversight” with the defiant “To come back to Ibn Firnas, Mr Rothstein’s claim is just not true.” *sigh*

    I could go on, but you get the idea. If this is how pro-Islamic-culture groups usually treat media criticism, it’s not encouraging. I hope this is not the norm.

  • Jerry

    There are major problems with that review that I’m very surprised you did not point out.

    This was not a news report but an opinion piece. If someone wrote a story about Christians and did not interview the Christians involved, you’d be on them in a flash. You should have mentioned that from the get go.

    Another issue with the original review that you should have pounced on is their obvious error:

    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;

    That’s called science. Later researchers fill in missing pieces of earlier work. To denigrate Newton’s work on the basis that Einstein constructed a better picture of the universe, for example, is a mistake of the first order.

    Perhaps this points out that if you’re going to feature an opinion piece here, you should treat it as a news story and report on the holes and errors.

    Do media outlets tout the positive in Islam and minimize the negative? Does that explain some of the weaknesses in coverage of Islam?

    The weakness in coverage is the same weakness in the coverage of Christianity and is the same weakness that you comment on all the time – the media does not get religion. Or as that opinion piece illustrates, some in the media don’t get history or science either.

  • Mollie


    There may have been problems I didn’t point out, but two issues with your note. One is that while an interview might have added to the piece, I don’t think it was necessary. The whole point of a review is to review the public product that has been presented. In a way, it’s just like a movie review. Absolutely no need to interview the folks in or behind the movie. Particularly since anytime he went into a backstory, it was well sourced.

    And calling someone’s work “impressive” but not (as the exhibit suggested) complete is hardly denigrating that work. In fact, the reviewer repeatedly said that a straightforward, less exaggerated exhibit featuring all of the scientific accomplishments of the era would have been impressive on its own.

    That’s not to say, however, that this review didn’t have problems. It may have. But if my excerpts made it seem like he was denigrating impressive work, that’s not what the review did.

  • Brendan

    One last comment on the FSTC rebuttal, regarding the highly-commented-upon subject of multiculturalism:

    The NYT review noted that

    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.

    In response, FSTC’s Point #4 (the second #4, sic) pointed to other exhibits by Muslim Heritage(!). I mean, really? The review was of the FSTC exhibit, not an “exhibition shown at the United Nations delegates entrance in New York in November 2008″ or “the current exhibition at NYSCI”! And FSTC’s insinuation that Mr. Rothstein should know about them (“We assume that Mr Rothstein is unaware of another of our exhibitions”… “it is a pity that he did not appear to have seen in the current exhibition at…”) is inane.

    The fact that they had nothing more that off-topic insinuations on this point, considering how they’ve scraped the bottom of the barrel of excuses on other points, means they really have no defense whatever against this very critical charge. It is a very curious thing indeed, when in the name of multiculturalism one cultural/religious faction is permitted to exalt itself above all others. And I’m glad the NYT has taken note and pray the media continue to keep an eye out for uncritically effusive praise of any culture or religion.

  • C. Wingate

    I have a fair bit of experience with this in a different medium, because I’m a participant in Wikipedia in some of the places where these claims wash ashore. One of the project’s many plagues is the urge to slip in these sorts of claims, valid or not, in the interest of many, many Prides, from Arab through gay and for all I know through Zanzibar. Trying to keep the bogus claims out and the marginal and historically unimportant assertions labeled as such is a never-ending campaign.

    I’m really quite impressed by the NYT‘s nerve in walking right up to the problems in such an exhibit, and I would add that they’ve done something a lot of papers wouldn’t bother with: they’ve done the necessary research rather than just report “he said/she said” battles of talking heads. Of course, this is a review, not a news story, so it’s easier to get away with it. But they’ve effectively put the paper’s prestige and authority behind refuting the claims made here in a sensitive subject. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when the show arrives in DC.

  • Micheal Hickerson

    How often do newspapers review exhibits at science and history museums? Though I love attending these exhibits, I often find that they under-explain, over-simplify, or make claims beyond their appropriate scope. I would love it if more newspapers followed the NYT’s lead here in actually engaging museums’ content.

  • MJBubba

    C.Wingate (#15), your Wikipedia point of view connected this review in my mind with the Jagged85 problem, in which a rogue editor used 63,000 duplicitious edits over four years “on a two-fold mission on wikipedia, the first of which is to promote scientific achievements on non-European cultures while downplaying and hedging those of European cultures, and the second of which is to promote a positive image of Islam, whether through scientific achievements or social reforms.”:

  • John Pack Lambert

    If Harvey was un-aware of al-Nafi’s work, than to argue a connection between the two is an act of writing an alternative history.

    However, I would say that the whole premise of this exhibit is odd. I think the point about ignoring Chirsitan Arabs and including Muslim Chinese was the most striking attack on the display.

    Whatever else can be said of the Abbasid Caliphate and the society it presided over, it must be admitted that many contributions were made by Jews and Christians. To treat the advances of science in this society as of one religious body is to ignore the multi-religious nature of this society.

    It would be like doing a piece on 10th century Cordoba in which only Muslims were mentioned and Christians and Jews were ignired.

  • Dave G.

    I think the problem with this post is that it should be on a website entitled ‘The Press … just doesn’t get History.’ It’s dealing with the approaches to history, and the various assumptions that go behind presenting a historical narrative, rather than religion. History is about one part science, three parts art. There’s a lot of room for how we fill in the gaps, or how we interpret the evidence. Why this exhibit did what it did might fall under the broad category religion, but it’s more to do with historical interpretation, and the approaches to historical research that exist today, specifically in light of multi cultural education.

    From what I can see presented here at least, this is a Dances With Wolves take on history for the Islamic culture. An attempt to right whatever past wrongs by emphasizing, perhaps over emphasizing, the positive, while pretty much ignoring the negative (or in this case, ignoring the positives from other non-Muslim cultures). That’s one way of doing history, and based on the review and the rebuttal at least, the way that might have been chosen for this exhibit. But in any event, it’s more the way history is approached, than religion is covered, that seems to be the question here. At least IMHO.

  • Perry Robinson

    Dark Ages? Constantinople never had one. There never was a need to “rediscover” Aristotle, Galen, et al. A good number of Islamic “discoveries” were taken over from the Hindus’ such as in Mathematics or from the Byzantines in Roman architecture.

    There were also textul discoveries that they never made, though should have. There were works they thought were from Aristotle, such as the Book of Causes, which were proved by Aquinas to not to be works of Aristotle at all. And then there were cases where they would suppress knowledge such as Aristotle work on Politics.

    Most of their advances were made on the backs of those they oppressed.

  • Dave G.

    Dark Ages? Constantinople never had one.

    That’s almost like saying there was a third option to add to the Christian Europe/Islamic Civilization model.

  • Mollie


    Keep comments focused on the media coverage rather than the underlying issues.

  • Dave G.

    And yet those underlying issues may directly influence how one sees or understands the media coverage. :)

  • Mollie

    Dave G.,

    I know — it’s just that we need to tie the two things together a bit. Bring it back around (like you did on the GetHistory comment).