Sorry, Your Religious Commercial is Getting in the Way of Our Scientific History

A truly excellent, thoughtful review from Edward Rothstein of the “1001 Inventions” on view through April 24 at the New York Hall of Science, Queens:

There aren’t 1,001 inventions on display, but those that are, along with the ideas described, are meant to show that the Western Dark Ages really were a Golden Age of Islam: a thousand years, in the show’s reckoning, that lasted into the 17th century. During that era, the exhibition asserts, Muslim scientists and inventors, living in empires reaching from Spain to China, anticipated the innovations of the modern world


[…]As it turns out, though, the account requires extensive qualification. Had we learned more about scientific principles, had we been given sober assessments of, say, how 10th-century science developed, had a scholarly perspective been more evident — had we, in other words, been ushered into this world in a way once expected from science museums — the show could have been far more powerful.Instead, it is as manipulative as it is illuminating. “1001 Inventions,” we are told in the literature, “is a nonreligious and non-political project.” But it actually is a little bit religious and considerably political.It is less a typical science exhibition than a typical “identity” exhibition. It was created by the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilization in London, whose goal is “to popularize, spread and promote an accurate account of Muslim Heritage and its contribution.” The show also tries to “instill confidence” and provide positive “role models” for young Muslims, as Mr. Hassani puts it in the book. And it is part of a “global educational initiative” that includes extensive classroom materials.The promotional goal is evident in every display. The repeated suggestion is that Muslim scientists made discoveries later attributed to Westerners and that many Western institutions were shaped by Muslim contributions.

Yes, this is the sort of Anthropological Advocacy that Corrupts by Flattery. Instead of presenting interesting information and exhibits, its primary purpose is Boosterism. 

Of course this is why no one takes Religious Histories written by the religions themselves (or their adherants) seriously, because the result isn’t going to be filled with self-reflection, but self-glorying Hagiography. 

Religious affiliation actually seems far more important here than is acknowledged, keeping some figures out and ushering others in.


And finally we never learn much about the role of Islam itself. Universities, we read, were affiliated with mosques. Did that affect scientific inquiry or the status of non-Muslim scientists? Did the religious regime have any impact on the ultimate failure of the transmission and expansion of scientific knowledge? And given the high cost of any golden age, isn’t it necessary to give some account of this civilization’s extensive slave trade?

Instead of expanding the perspective, the exhibition reduces it to caricature, showing Muslim culture rising out of a shadowy past to attain glories later misappropriated by Western epigones. Left unexplored too is how this tradition ended, leading to a long eclipse of science in Muslim lands. There is only a recurring hint of injustices done.The paradox is that this narrative is not only questionable but also unnecessary. An exhibition about scientific achievements during the Abbasid Caliphate could be remarkable if approached with curatorial perspective. Why then, the indulgence here?

Perhaps because one tendency in the West, particularly after 9/11, has been to answer Muslim accusations of injustice (and even real attacks) with an exaggerated declaration of regard. It is guiltily offered as if in embarrassed compensation, inspired by a desire not to appear to tar Islam with the fervent claims made by its most violent adherents.

In this case the issue is Islam and its history, but the broader problem of “exaggerated regard” is how America and its public institutions kow-tow to religion, and religious people.


About dilaceratus

Encaustic Artist
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