Sunday, June 07, 2009

Obama’s Cairo Speech and Muslim Innovation

Obama said:

It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed. Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation.

Micheal Ledeen complains:

He credited Muslims for inventions of others, from the magnetic compass to algebra to pens, arches, and even to printing. It’s as if there were no ancient Chinese inventions, and the Romans had to await the Prophet before they could build the Pantheon. And someone really should tell him that printing came from the Orient, was rejected in Muslim domains, and then developed in Europe. It was introduced into the Middle East in the 15th century by Jews, who were not permitted to publish in Arabic. So the first printing press in the region was brought by Jews who then published in Hebrew.

Well, no.

The key word in the first sentence was developed. Science is rarely a single invention, but a series of developments building on what went before. The algebra of al-Khwarizmi and later Muslim scholars was based on Greek and Indian sources but went beyond them. Modern algebra was further developed in Europe. The Chinese floating compass went through a great deal of development to reach its current form, some of it, like the familiar 32 point compass rose, in the Muslim world.

Printing as we know it isn’t a single technology, but a series of innovations: printing itself, paper, printing on paper, the efficient production of paper, the printing press and movable type.

Block printing on textile was present in Egypt as early as the 4th century AD. Printing on paper required paper. The original Chinese invention of paper used Mulberry fiber, with paper produced laboriously by hand and made to be written on with a brush. When Muslim nations acquired the technology they adapted it to their own needs: linen was used instead of Mulberry fiber, the surface was modified to accept the western pen rather than a brush. Above all, production was industrialized to take full advantage of water powered paper mills. The diffusion of this technology to Western Europe set the stage for both more widespread literacy and for printing on paper.

I was surprised to find that there was printing on paper in the Muslim world long before it appeared in Europe. Even more surprisingly, metal letterpress plates seem to have been used, technology unknown in China or anywhere else until much later. Early Islamic printing on paper doesn't seem to have become widespread or an influence on Western printing, but it's still a fascinating story.

The second sentence in the Obama speech above simply talks about cultural contribution rather than technological. Muslims didn’t invent the arch, but they did give us the Taj Mahal. That counts for something.

Frank J. Tipler weighs in with more stupidity.

If one reads history of science textbooks prior to about 1980, one will find very little mention of Muslim “contributions” to physics and astronomy. This is reasonable, because there weren’t any. In the past generation, however, political correctness has dictated that Muslims be given credit for discoveries they did not make.

I’m the lucky owner of a copy of the 14th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, published in 1929. If you’ve read any of the ethnographic entries, you will understand that it is untainted by any hint of political correctness. I turned to the article on astronomy.

Hipparchus and Ptolemy get about 7 ½ column inches. Copernicus gets 6 ¾ column inches.

“Arabia”: Muslim astronomy at Cairo and points east, gets 3 ¾ column inches. Pre-Copernican medieval astronomy gets a further 2 ¾ column inches. Much of that section is devoted to Moorish Spain, to the Alfonsine Tables based to a great extent on earlier Arabic observations, and on the influence of Ibn Junis. All told, Muslim astronomy probably totals about 5 column inches.

“Not quite as important as Copernicus” as the measure of Muslim astronomy’s contributions seems a lot more than “there weren’t any”.

In their prime Muslim astronomers developed new and improved instruments and recorded many careful observations, much of which superseded and corrected the work of Ptolemy. Copernicus was explicit in relying on the work of the Muslim astronomers he knew as al-Battani and Arzachel.


Steve Muhlberger said...

"Muslims didn’t invent the arch, but they did give us the Taj Mahal. That counts for something."

I was truly astonished to see the Taj Mahal, because I thought I knew what it looked like.

Nancy Harris said...

It is indeed very interesting to hear what the President of United States have to say about muslims. Quoting from the Quran for emphasis, President Barack Obama called for a "new beginning between the United States and Muslims". This is truly a new page upon which history is being written. His words will mean a lot, but it's the policies that count. Hope for the best.