I’ve noticed that all the clickbait sites are starting to converge on HuffPo, with headlines like “Ten genius hacks for discarded corncobs,” “KimK throws shade on TSwift,” “Amy Schumer has an important message for haters,” and so on. Looking at a piece on BuzzFeed (about cats, of course), I noticed that it was barely distinguishable from HuffPo. And, of course, all these sites are Authoritarian Left, which I find depressing. Better to read Quillette, which has substance, serious, non-kneejerk thought, and no fluff.
A reader called my attention to a similar piece on the website Good: “Islamophobe on Tumblr gets completely owned“, which is in the Authoritarian Left genre (viz., “owned”, meaning “demolished”), but also factually dubious. It begins with a provocative picture of the pre-9/11 World Trade Center, which would indeed be standing without Islamist terrorism. But it’s an image that I wouldn’t use because it does promote bigotry:
In that sense the meme is “Muslimophobic.” But to refute it, the author, Todd Perry, reproduced a list, posted by Tumblr user “whatpathall”, of the innovations in our world that wouldn’t exist without Muslims. That’s a decent tactic in principle, but oy, the things he lists! To wit:
Yes, lets imagine a world WITHOUT MUSLIMS, shall we?
Without Muslims you wouldn’t have:
Crank-shaft, internal combustion engine, valves, pistons
Architectural innovation (pointed arch -European Gothic cathedrals adopted this technique as it made the building much stronger, rose windows, dome buildings, round towers, etc.)
Treatment of Cowpox
3 course meal (soup, meat/fish, fruit/nuts)
Gardens used for beauty and meditation instead of for herbs and kitchen.
Manufacturing of paper and cloth
I’m not going to examine every one of these claims, but there are three things wrong with such a list in principle. The two most important are these. First, Islamic doctrine had absolutely nothing to do with any such inventions or discoveries, and that’s the doctrine that the invidious meme above is directed at. Second, even if all these things did come from Muslims (they didn’t), that does nothing to buttress or validate the tenets of Islam, which are based on the fictitious story of a dictation by an angel (prompted by Allah) to an illiterate merchant. So one can criticize Islamic doctrine, especially the hateful and xenophobic bits, and still recognize that Muslims made contributions to society. After all, many of us criticize Christianity and its subspecies Catholicism, but of course Christians have made tons of contributions to the world, few of which had anything to do with Christianity itself. And those contributions don’t do anything to establish the truth of Scripture.
Finally, of course, even if Muslims hadn’t invented some of this stuff, other people would have invented it anyway. Rarely are inventions one-off things that wouldn’t exist if their inventors hadn’t lived. That’s one of the points that Matt Ridley made in his new book The Evolution of Everything: How Ideas Emerge. (I criticized that book in the Times Literary Supplement, but some of Ridley’s claims, like the parallelism of inventions like the light bulb, were correct.) It’s just wrong to say that “If Muslims hadn’t existed, we wouldn’t have inventions X, Y, or Z.”
The list above is impressive, and indeed, lots of the stuff mentioned was either devised by Muslims (fountain pens) or promulgated by them after discovery by non-Muslims (coffee). But I was dubious about many of these claims, for we have to remember that Islam didn’t exist till the late sixth and early seventh centuries A.D. A few minutes on the Internet showed that the following items were almost certainly not devised by Muslims (I didn’t check everything, of course): numbering systems (devised by Greeks Romans, Egyptians, and, in our modern form, Hindus); toothbrushes (Chinese, Romans, Greeks); bathing (Greece, ancient India); Braille (invented by Louis Braille in the 19th century, though a blind 14th-century Muslim, Ali Ibn Ahmed Al Amidi, had a personal system for organizing his books); calligraphy (early Christians, ancient Chinese and Indians); manufacture of paper (Chinese), vaccination against cowpox (China and India, roughly 11th century), and so on. Readers are welcome to check other claims themselves. I’m pretty sure you’ll find many dubious ones.
But remember, even the true claims don’t do anything to validate the tenets of Islam or render them immune from criticism. What my rudimentary fact-checking shows is that the author didn’t do a very good job, and this article should never have been published.
But wait! There’s more! The Tumblr user added these:
It was a Muslim who realized that light ENTERS our eyes, unlike the Greeks who thought we EMITTED rays, and so invented a camera from this discovery.
It was a Muslim who first tried to FLY in 852, even though it is the Wright Brothers who have taken the credit.
It was a Muslim by the name of Jabir ibn Hayyan who was known as the founder of modern Chemistry. He transformed alchemy into chemistry. He invented: distillation, purification, oxidation, evaporation, and filtration. He also discovered sulfuric and nitric acid.
It is a Muslim, by the name of Al-Jazari who is known as the father of robotics.
It was a Muslim who was the architect for Henry V’s castle.
It was a Muslim who invented hollow needles to suck cataracts from eyes, a technique still used today.
It was a Muslim who actually discovered inoculation, not Jenner and Pasteur to treat cowpox. The West just brought it over from Turkey
It was Muslims who contributed much to mathematics like Algebra and Trigonometry, which was imported over to Europe 300 years later to Fibonnaci and the rest.
It was Muslims who discovered that the Earth was round 500 years before Galileo did.
The list goes on…
Okay, I’m not going to check all of these. In fact I looked at just two that stood out: flying and the idea of a round earth. The claim that both came from Muslims is dead wrong.
Flight. “whatpath” is probably referring to Abba ibn Firnas, a Moorish Muslim about whom Wikipedia says this:
Some seven centuries after the death of Firnas, the Moroccan historian Ahmed Mohammed al-Maqqari (d. 1632) wrote a description of Firnas that included the following:
Among other very curious experiments which he made, one is his trying to fly. He covered himself with feathers for the purpose, attached a couple of wings to his body, and, getting on an eminence, flung himself down into the air, when according to the testimony of several trustworthy writers who witnessed the performance, he flew a considerable distance, as if he had been a bird, but, in alighting again on the place whence he had started, his back was very much hurt, for not knowing that birds when they alight come down upon their tails, he forgot to provide himself with one.
Al-Maqqari is said to have used in his history works “many early sources no longer extant”, but in the case of Firnas, he does not cite his sources for the details of the reputed flight, though he does claim that one verse in a 9th-century Arab poem is actually an allusion to Firnas’s flight. The poem was written by Mu’min ibn Said, a court poet of Córdoba under Muhammad I (d. 886), who was acquainted with and usually critical of Ibn Firnas. The pertinent verse runs: “He flew faster than the phoenix in his flight when he dressed his body in the feathers of a vulture.” No other surviving sources refer to the event.
It has been suggested that Ibn Firnas’s attempt at glider flight might have inspired the attempt by Eilmer of Malmesbury between 1000 and 1010 in England, but there is no evidence supporting this hypothesis.
If you want to take that as an antecedent to the Wright Brothers, be my guest!
Round earth: the roundness of the earth was in fact known to the ancient Greeks in the third century B.C., with the classic (and remarkably accurate) measurement of the Earth’s circumference made by Eratosthenes in Egypt. Islam did not exist then.
Again, readers are welcome to check the other claims for themselves. This is not, as I said, to denigrate the contributions made by ancient Islamic scholars, but to criticize the idea that those somehow validate Islamic beliefs or refute the claim that modern terrorism has been largely inspired by extremist Islam.