Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Curing 1000 years of amnesia: Europe's (re)discovery of Arab Culture

Britain's venerable Royal Society (dating back to the 1660s) hosted Professor Charles Burnett of The Warburg Institute, University of London, for a talk entitled 'The European Discovery of Arab Culture'. A medievalist by training, Charles Burnett has been Professor of Islamic Influences in Europe since 1999 and is the founder of the Centre for the History of Arabic Studies in Europe (CHASE). Although there appears to be a cavalier conflation of 'Arabic' and 'Islamic' in these designations, in his introductory remarks, Professor Burnett took care to underscore the importance of making a clear distinction between the two.


The lecture, co-hosted by the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilization, was held as one of the closing events celebrating an exhibition of Muslim contributions to the advancement of scientific knowledge throughout the Middle Ages at the Royal Society's headquarters on Carlton House Terrace.


Bettany Hughes
The exhibition and lecture were conceived to cure what has been dubbed the collective 1000-year amnesia which has made the West forget the significance of Arab and Muslim achievements in science and knowledge in general for the development of European civilization. The event was MC'ed by the historian and renowned broadcaster Bettany Hughes, while the lecture was chaired by Jim al-Khalili, a Professor of physics at the University of Surrey and also a well-known TV figure actively engaged in the promotion of the sciences and the significance of inter-civilizational contacts for the development of human knowledge. Words of welcome were also spoken by Professor Lorna Casselton, the Society's Foreign Secretary, and Professor Salim al-Hassani, Chairman of the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilization (FSTC) -- a British-based non-profit organization established to promote the contributions of Muslim civilization and its role in the advancement of humankind through scientific knowledge and its technological application. It seeks to promote awareness of Islam as a civilization and stimulate interest in the multicultural aspects of scientific progress through the centuries by supporting a wide range of activities including the online based initiatives, MuslimHeritage and the global 1001 Inventions Project.

Prof. Salim al-Hassani
In his talk, Charles Burnett sketched how, up to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, European scholars eagerly learned Arabic in order to access the Islamic depositories of knowledge. Meanwhile merchants were encouraged to carry manuscripts from the eastern bassin of the Mediterranean and from North Africa to the southern shores of Europe. What is remarkable about the exchange is that European curiosity was generally limited to the exact or natural sciences. However, by the 1300s, this interaction reached its conclusion as Europeans became of the opinion that also in these fields nothing new could be gained from Arab and Islamic scholarship. This closing of the mind lasted until the sixteenth century, when interest in the Orient was rekindled. In contrast to the earlier ages, now there was an expressed interest in Arab and Islamic culture and civilization. The first chairs in Arabic were established in Paris, Leiden, Cambridge and Oxford with the objective of expanding the knowledge of Semitic languages in order to come to a deeper and better understanding of Jewish and Christian scriptures. In this development, Arabic was treated as an auxillary to the study of Hebrew and the seeds for a polemical engagement with Islamic religious doctrine were laid as well.
Prof. Jim al-Khalili (L) and Prof. Charles Burnett
The evening's programme was closed by Dr Rim Turkmani, a Syrian-born astrophysicist at Imperial College, who helped curate the 'Arabick Roots of Knowledge'  exhibition. In her presentation she showcased some of the main exhibits. 

'Arabick Roots' Exhibition at the Royal Society
Dr Rim Turkmani
While it is debatable whether the scholars from the medieval Islamic world would qualify as critical Muslims in a contemporary sense, what becomes evident from both the Royal Society exhibition and Prof. Burnett's lecture is that these Muslims were certainly critical to the development of Western civilization and the subsequent emergence of modernity.




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