Reflections on Islam


There is more cultural ancestry between the Islamic world and the Western world than many people wish to acknowledge. Alan Ssempebwa takes a closer look.

With Ramadan just ending and Muslims reflecting on themselves and their actions it is useful to understand what Muslims have given to the world.

In the western imagination Islam has become known as a dangerous faith, preaching intolerance towards the west and western culture; backwards as a culture and contemptuous towards women. The enduring image of the twin towers falling on 9/11 as well as the London Transport bombing on 7/7 has created an instant negative association with Islam. These events coupled with the outbreak of wars and tension between the west and the Middle East has fostered an increasingly hostile relationship, confusing Islam as a faith and the actions and beliefs of a few misguided Muslims.

Much of our society’s understanding of Islam is misinformed, and the gifts its followers have brought the world go largely unrecognised. We owe a great debt to Muslims as many of the things they have brought us are taken for granted and seldom accredited or celebrated in the same way the modern Judeo-Christian and older Greco-Roman traditions are.

Despite the distinction often made between different cultures throughout history, there has been a massive overlap and exchange of ideas that has subsequently shaped our lives today. The bias against Islam has made us ignorant of Muslim contributions, so it is worth enlightening ourselves on some of the many things Muslim polymaths have given the modern world.

In the fields of science and medicine we owe Muslim polymaths a considerable amount. In The Cannon of Medicine Ibn Sina (Avicenna) compiled a complete book of all the medical knowledge of the time. Avicenna displayed a comprehension of germs, contagious disease and infection that was the pinnacle of knowledge and was used into the 18th century in European Universities. His use of quarantine and the division of patients according to symptoms was a prequel to modern day hospitals. Ibn al-Nafis is recognised as the first to describe the pulmonary circulation of blood. Here are just two contributions among many that Muslims have had on the history of medicine.

Algebra is taken form the Arabic word al-jabr or restoration, and was developed greatly by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (Algoritmi). Algorism and algorithm both stem from his Latinised name. The system of numbering we used today is based on Hindu-Arabic numerals first appearing in print in al-Khwarizmi’s works. With heavy influences from India, Arabic mathematicians thrived in the field and even invented the decimal place. We use Arabic numerals every time we write number.

Despite many calls for Islam to reform today, in the Islamic golden age Muslim philosophers found it perfectly possible to reconcile Aristotelian and Neoplatonism with their faith. The Islamic embrace of Greek philosophy has subsequently led to them being the main preservers and commentators of the ancient Greek texts. Muslim philosophers had their own works translated into Latin and where significant their own right. Today we owe much of our knowledge about philosophers such Aristotle to Muslims, particularly the Baghdad House of Wisdom. Averroes even features in Rafael’s famous fresco School of Athens among other famous philosophers.

Muslims were aware that the earth was spherical and revolved around the sun long before it occurred to Galileo. Muslims contributed greatly to astronomy, and this was partly aided by the fact that they rely on the positions of the sun and moon to determine prayer times and the Islamic calendar. There are still stars today that are referred to by their Arabic names such as Aldebaran and Altair.

Other than these grand developments that can be attributed to the Muslim world, they also improved our lives in more subtle ways, through small inventions and cultural practices that have become ubiquitous today. The invention of the fountain pen which is the basis for all modern pens having an ink reservoir that fed ink to the nib. They perfected the recipe for soap, which was the result of their religious hygiene requirements. Muslims have to wash before prayer which they do 5 times a day, in stark contrast Queen Elizabeth I of England was so concerned about hygiene that she bathed once a month whether she needed it or not. There are examples of western art where figures like Jesus and the Virgin Marry painted standing on Islamic carpets, wearing Islamic clothing, or decorations in Arabic and Pseudo-Kufic writing. This shows the reputation in which their culture was held.

We also owe coffee, quilting, the crank shaft, carpets and the 3 course meal among many other things to Muslims. As a way of life it has allowed people to express themselves, pursuing logic and reason through philosophy, maths and science. They have borrowed from neighbouring cultures and civilizations, managing to preserve and enhance ideas as well as create new ones. So rather than associate Islam with terrorism, religious fundamentalism and bigotry, remember what Islam has really given us, try and reflect on where humanity would be if it weren’t for Muslims.

Eid Mubarak

Alan Ssempebwa

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I didn't think muslims made

I didn't think muslims made any contributions to the world. The stories I learned in newspapers and TV have led me to think that they were all trouble makers, uneducated, barbaric and uncivilised. After reading this article, I now realise that we owe a lot to muslims and their faith. A good eye-opener.