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Part 2. A Christian-Muslim Exchange: Islam and Religious Dialogue

Toby E. Huff

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The tenor of Richard John Neuhaus' Public Square essay on the book The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam by Bat Ye'or ("The Approaching Century of Religion," October 1997) seems entirely misdirected if the intention is to encourage understanding as well as dialogue between the various religious communities. The essay contains several factual errors, misses a number of very important progressive social movements in the Muslim world, and demeans rather than encourages dialogue about important religious and social differences.

First, with regard to the hoary notion that the Islamic world did nothing but preserve and pass on philosophical and scientific learning from the Greeks and other ancient civilizations: Father Neuhaus has latched on to an outdated and faulty conception that he takes directly from the concluding pages of Professor Bat Ye'or's Epilogue--not the main subject on which Bat Ye'or is a specialist. To put it boldly and bluntly, it is now widely recognized that from about the eighth century till the end of the thirteenth century, the Arabic-Islamic world had the most advanced science to be found anywhere in the world. This was so in the fields of astronomy, mathematics, optics, and medicine.

In the field of astronomy, where the great theoretical breakthrough to modern science is usually located, the planetary models developed by the astronomers at the Mar‚gha observatory, culminating in those of Ibn al-Shatir (d. 1375), were virtually identical mathematically to those of Copernicus, with only minor differences in some parameters, though the Arab models remained geocentric. Nor were the Arabs lacking in technical or mathematical skills. In fact, their skills in trigonometry, which the Chinese lacked, resulted in the establishment of a Muslim bureau of astronomy in Peking in the thirteenth century.

But more: Professor Roshdi Rashed has shown that Arab mathematicians in the eleventh and twelfth centuries achieved mathematical innovations that were not accomplished by Europeans until the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. He lists the following achievements, above all in the work of al-KarajÓ (d. 1129) and al-Samaw'al (d. 1174): "the extension of the idea of an algebraic power to its inverse after clearly defining the power of zero, the rule of signs in all generality, the binomial formula and the tables of coefficients, the algebra of polynomials, and above all, the algorithm of divisibility, and the approximation of whole fractions by elements of the algebra of polynomials." In addition to this, the Arab-Muslims of this same period pioneered three forms of experimentation, in optics, astronomy, and medicine. In short, it is gravely mistaken to suggest that nothing of any intellectual significance was created in the Muslim world in the medieval period, roughly 850 to 1350--or that whatever creative advances did occur there were produced by non-Muslims.

Likewise, it is highly misleading to suggest that it was the cultural elites fleeing Islamic oppression who then "rescued" all of this knowledge for the West. Current historical scholarship tells a very different story, which includes many European intellectuals who traveled widely in the Muslim world and gained access to a great variety of Arabic manuscripts in science and philosophy and translated them into Latin, as they realized that Europeans had much to learn from this bounty of knowledge. There are many well-known books by contemporary historians of Arabic-Islamic science in which all of these widely understood facts have been spelled out--but to which neither Neuhaus nor Bat Ye'or makes any reference.

Speaking sociologically, Fr. Neuhaus has also entirely neglected the many elements of change and reform now going on in the Muslim world. One of the most notable concerns the feminist movement in the Muslim world, where there are highly trained and deeply knowledgeable intellectuals bravely mastering all the ancient scholars' sources--hadith and Quran--for the purpose of new interpretations of the Islamic message as it applies to women. Many of these individuals would be happy to advocate the notion of "Equal before Allah," the title of a collection of Muslim feminist writings (by Fatima Mernissi and Riffat Hassan) of the highest quality now appearing in Indonesia.

Likewise, there are many other intellectuals who are striving to understand the Islamic message as it applies to this day, and such efforts include a brave new hermeneutical study of the Quran by Mohammad Shahrour. Nor should we overlook the significance of the work of the prolific Sudanese scholar, Abdullahi An-Na'im, who calls for Islamic reform based on a deep knowledge of Islamic law. Other studies suggest that the traditional scholars--the ulama--are being displaced by a great wave of educated Muslims, fully fluent in Arabic, who, probably for the first time in the history of Islam, outnumber the traditional scholars. This is likely to have a positive influence on Islamic thought in the future.

Lastly, I would bring to the attention of your readers the extraordinary legal reforms recently brought about in Malaysia, whereby the Qadi courts--the religious courts--have been dramatically upgraded and made intellectually equal to the secular courts in every respect, while eliminating the many disparities between male and female legal rights. The legal scholar Donald Horowitz has discussed these changes in some detail. None of this sounds to me like Huntington's phantom "clash of civilizations."

If the Institute on Religion and Public Life truly wishes to engage Muslims in a dialogue, perhaps it should start with a radically revised image of contemporary Islam, while issuing a much more cordial invitation to Muslims and others to participate in it. In my view, tremendous good could be accomplished for the world if Muslim intellectuals from all over the world were brought together here and elsewhere to participate in prolonged intellectual dialogue in a truly open public sphere.

Toby E. Huff
Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology
Univ. of Massachusetts, Dartmouth
North Dartmouth, MA

The writer is author of The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China, and the West (Cambridge University Press, 1993).

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 79 (January 1998): 2-8

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