Repaying the West's Debt to Islam

Science today wouldn't be as advanced without so many discoveries from the Muslim world. It's time to reach across today's hurtful barriers

Unless you're a history buff, it can be hard to believe how pivotal early Islamic civilization was in laying the foundations of modern science, mathematics, technology, and the arts. Between 600 AD and 1400 AD, Europe was caught in a bleak time, commonly termed the Dark Ages. During that same period, however, Islamic societies were making fundamental discoveries.

The contributions of early Islamic people are far too numerous to list. A few innovations starting with the letter "a" are: acetic acid, alcohol, almanacs, aloe, and astrolabes. In addition, these people were adept at improving the technologies and inventions that Muslim traders brought back from China.

In the sciences, Islamic scholars began converting Greek speculations into a process for uncovering verifiable facts. They made fundamental contributions to medicine, astronomy, chemistry, physics, and optics. In medicine, for example, Muslim scientists developed a hollow needle for removing cataracts from the eye by suction -- around 1,000 years ago. And mathematics was a Muslim forte, as seen in the creation of algebra and the Arabic number system that we use today.

AT ODDS AGAIN.  New musical instruments, such as the violin and the guitar, which most people associate with Western music, owe their origins to the peoples of North Africa and Asia Minor. Islamic artistic contributions ranged from architecture and calligraphy to painting and poetry.

These ideas and discoveries spread outside the Muslim world as a result, ironically, of the Crusades. Although Europe lost militarily, the transfer of goods and ideas led directly to the Renaissance. All this is particularly surprising when juxtaposed with the contemporary view of Muslim society as being theocratic and backward.

Hundreds of years after the Crusades, the Western and Muslim worlds are once again at odds. While the West is racing ahead in industrialization and human rights, the Muslim world seems less eager for change. If Westernization threatens to undermine their proud history, many Islamic countries would rather foresake foreign amenities, preserve their customs and culture, and continue leading a religious life according to the Quran.

GROWING DISTRUST.  Islamic resistance to change may stem largely from the desires of political and religious leaders to preserve their power. But skepticism toward Western modernity is not illogical. Some horrific events of the 20th century were justified in terms of "scientific" and "innovative" thinking. Both Hitler and Stalin employed the tools of modern science to advance programs that they viewed as highly "rational."

Coming on top of the political mayhem in the Middle East wrought by the West and its imperialistic policies from the late 19th century until after World War I, it's hardly surprising that the Muslim world views the West with suspicion. The creation and continuing support of Israel, and now the war on terrorism, have only intensified Muslim distrust.

Perhaps it's time for the West to remember its debts to the Muslim world and help Islamic society to regain its past glory -- on their terms, not ours.

SEE AND BE SEEN.  As a beginning, we must establish mutual trust. Given the condescending and stereotypical viewpoints with which each has viewed the other, one small step might be for the U.S. State Dept. or philanthropic organizations to arrange regular visits by Muslim clerics to U.S. universities and public TV and radio shows. Many Americans know so little about the Muslim religion that they would be pleasantly surprised to learn it's more tolerant of other religions than some Protestant denominations are, and more catholic in outlook than Catholicism.

School teachers from Islamic countries could be invited to join educational workshops organized by such groups as the National Science Teachers Assn. and the National Science Foundation. Simultaneous translations would be available even to small contingents.

Leaders from Muslim communities in the U.S. could make sponsored goodwill tours of the Middle East. Hopefully, they would convey the message that the first amendment of our Constitution guarantees people the right to worship freely as long as it doesn't harm others. Hearing this from fellow Muslims who live in the U.S. might help persuade skeptics that, contrary to past lessons of history, Western culture does not imply meddling in the religious preferences of other peoples.

WORDS TO LIVE BY.  Such actions could be a start, but changing mindsets on both sides will be a long-term effort. Whatever the duration, we must be patient and remember that we're honoring a debt, expecting nothing in return. We must accept that the Muslin leaders who emerge may not agree with us on all things.

It will be a Herculean task, but not an impossible one. Through it all, people-to-people contacts will be vital. The wisdom for that permeates Western culture -- even popular music. In the words of a Sting song: "You can't control an independent heart... If you love someone, set them free."

By Olga Pikovskaya - MARCH 29, 2005 - BusinessWeek