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Vitality of Islamic civilisation
V. N. Datta

Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers and Artists
by Michael Hamilton Morgan. National Geographic Society, Washington DC. Pages XVIII+302. $26.

Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers and ArtistsTHIS book doesn’t discuss Islam or its theology but Islamic civilisation, which has been misunderstood and distorted, especially after 9/11 attacks on the US. The author has resurrected and reconstructed the hitherto forgotten contributions of Islamic civilisation in various spheres of human activity to humankind, in order to counter the nefarious propaganda waged that Islam is the breeding-ground of terrorism.

The book opens with a brief sketch of the life of Prophet Muhammad, and the Quran, which Morgan regards the remembrance of all previous messages of Islam, especially of Abraham, Moses and Jesus Christ. The Quran is represented in this work as a repository of knowledge and wisdom with the special dimension of its message. The Quran was not revealed at one precise moment but at intervals, covering a period of about 21 years.

Morgan maintains that the beauty and grandeur of the Quran don’t lie so much in its eloquence and rhetorical flourishes but in its benign message of faith in God, the brotherhood of man, compassion and charity. He emphasises that Islam is a multi-faceted faith that has no pope and no simple interpretations. In its structure, the Quran is not chronological, and numerous interpretations are made in its narrative with the object of driving home to the reader the true import and significance of its message.

Morgan shows that in its early history, Islam developed some of the institutions such as ijtihad (holding an independent opinions) ijma (consensus), and shura (consultation), which represented a democratic spirit of functioning based on the equality of man, irrespective of his social and economic position. The initial Arab Muslim strategy of improvisation and assimilation combined with the quest of learning and experience laid the foundation for the flowering of the various Muslim golden ages in Andalusia and Persian, then in Central Asia, and finally in Anatolia and Mughal India. The Arab Muslims had also consolidated their control over the Iberian Peninsula and Southern France.

To the question what led to the rise and expansion of Islam, the author does not give satisfactory answer except, of course, indulging in vague generalities such as the Muslims superior military power, strategy and their tactical skills, which resulted in vanquishing their adversaries who, being easy-going and complacent, were too confident to be prudent.

Morgan regards the Arab Muslims as innovators in enhancing their military power in which they succeeded because they took the ongoing process of absorption of the Greek, Byzantine and Indian learning. He cites the example how the ideal of European courtly mythology, the armoured knight on the horseback and his weaponry came from the Muslim invader.

The author wrote that the "mounted knight and armour are really Muslim imports to Europe". Morgan cites the traditional Western view that the Arab Muslims almost conquered Europe because Europe had no leader or force that could stop them.

In his Decline and Fall of Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon too feared that "Europe might have become an Islamised culture, and Catholic culture might have never developed".

Gibbon allowed his imagination to float and he fancied that in case of the expansion of Islam, "perhaps the interpretation of the Quran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford and her pupils might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Muhammed".

Dilating on the vitality of Islamic culture, Morgan cites the examples of Baghdad and similar Muslim centers which became "world’s first think centers". At Baghdad, al-Khwarizmi and his colleagues had assimilated and aggregated much of the brilliance from the Babylonians via the Greeks; for example, they inherited the hexadecimal measure of time in 60 minutes. They captured the astronomic importance of numbers and via the Persians they adopted the zero. Al-Khwarizmi's work al-Iafri wa al Muquabala, was translated as the compendious Book on Calculation by completion and balancing. In his book, he wrote that "he intended to convey to the reader what is easiest and most useful in arithmetic; such as men instantly require in cases of inheritance, legacies, partition, lawsuits and trades and in all their dealings with one another or where the measuring of roads, the digging of canals, geometrical computations and other objects of various sorts or kinds are concerned". By his substantial contribution to the development of science, the author emphasises that al-Khurarizmi created a system that provided a key to unlock several planes of the universe.

In this work, the treatment of Muslim contribution to the vitality and richness of Indian culture is perfunctory. The Sultanate period is dismissed in a few pages, and only reference is made to Razia Sultan who is shown as completely free from any sign of religious discrimination against her non-Muslim subjects. Morgan has great admiration for Akbar, was gifted with an insatiable curiosity to ask the how and why of things.

According to the author, Akbar argued that "since religion is often a part of social conflict, what if all those religions could be combined". That is why Akbar held inter-faith debates with the theologians of Christianity, Zorastrianism, Sikhism, Jainism and Hinduism". Morgan sees Akbar’s concept of inter-faith dialogues adopted by the Government of India in its Constitution. Because of this legacy of inter-faith dialogues, the author praises Akbar for his modernity of outlook. But was Akbar modern? Did he set up a printing press or modernise his army? Did he strengthen his naval power? What type of educational system did he give to the country? Of course, inter-faith dialogues were a positive achievement; but there was much that remained to be done.

This book is just an introduction to the contribution of Muslim scholars and thinkers to the richness of Islamic civilisation. However, the work lacks structure and depth.