Our debt to Islam

Teaching children how Muslim sages saved European

philosophy could bridge a modern culture gap 

Martin Wainwright

Friday July 26, 2002

The Guardian 


Halfway down the old Band of Gold prostitutes' beat in

Lumb Lane, Bradford, there is an Asian-owned chemist's

shop advertising yunani tibb. Few people give the two

words a second glance, but they are a key to a

marvellous but scandalously little-known embrace

between those uneasy and quarrelsome neighbours, Islam

and the west. 

Tibb means "medicine" in Urdu, yunani means "Greek"

and the phrase comes straight from the centuries when

the Muslim world saved the bedrock of western European

culture, the learning of Athens. Without the work of a

500-year succession of Islamic sages, we would have

lost the essence of Aristotle, much of Plato and

scores of other ancients. 

It happened simply enough. While the barbarians

smashed and burned in western Europe, the Arabs and

Persians used the libraries of Alexandria and Asia

Minor, translated the scrolls and took them to Baghdad

and far beyond. In distant Bukhara on the Silk Road to

China, a teenager called Abu Ali Ibn Sina was

engrossed in Aristotle's Metaphysics at the age of 17.

The year was AD997 and the text - central to the

subsequent development of philosophy - had long been

lost and unknown in western Europe. 

The story of this priceless heritage's return home,

slung in the saddlebags of camels on the long caravans

to Cairo, Fez and the cities of Moorish Spain, is well

known to scholars. Hundreds of learned books are

available and if you key in Ibn Sina or his

westernised name Avicenna on an internet search engine

you will come up with about 28,800 references. But the

story, so relevant to the world today, has never been

admitted to everyday British culture. 

There are simple reasons for this too - medieval

Christian bigotry, the post-Renaissance belief in the

glory of Europe - but a lack of excitement in the

story is not one of them. Umberto Eco proved that in

the global bestseller, The Name of the Rose. His

demented monk Jorge smears poison on a lost work of

Aristotle and contemptuously spits out the name of

"the Arab, Averroes" - the scholar Ibn Rushd of

Cordoba, the last link in the journey of Greek

learning back to the west. 

The national curriculum reformers, to their credit,

have seen the gap and tried to fill it, but their good

intentions easily get lost. How many pupils in Britain

take key stage 3's option on Islamic civilisation

AD600-1600 or the shorter, 15-hour "scheme of work"

project on the cultural achievements of Islamic


The Department for Education does not know; neither,

more disturbingly, do the education authorities in a

place like Bradford where Muslims and others

desperately need common ground. In his report on the

Yorkshire city's divided communities last year, Lord

Ouseley inveighed against the national curriculum's

shortcomings and demanded "effective learning

environments in which racial differences are seen

positively by pupils, underpinned by knowledge and


He had good ideas, including a local Bradford

citizenship section to be added to the national

curriculum's citizenship module, which becomes

compulsory from September. But the simpler option of

highlighting those KS3 options, which offer just that

"knowledge and understanding", didn't figure. Did

Ouseley and his researchers know they were there? 

The need for them, and for simple, readable textbooks

on both courses, is not just a matter for the white

community; the story has been marginalised in Islamic

culture as well. A straw poll of British Asian

students in Bradford produces the occasional cautious

nod at the name Ibn Sina but none for Ibn Maimoun

(Maimonides, Saladin's doctor and the greatest Jewish

scholar of the Arabic world); and none for Ibn Rushd. 

Like Jorge, traditionalist Muslims have long found the

sage of Cordoba disturbing and hard to explain to

students in the madrassa. What can they make of a man

who complained that curbs on women wasted the

potential of half the population of the Islamic world

- and this way back in the 12th century?  A man whose

books, for a time, were proscribed by Christian and

Muslim authorities alike? 

And so we fumble on, with both communities stuck in

the world memorably summarised by Dr Johnson's

explanation of why Richard Knolles' book, A Generall

Historie of the Turkes (1603), sank without trace. The

author, said Johnson, "employed his genius upon a

foreign and uninteresting subject and recounted

enterprises and revolutions of which none desire to be


Next to Lumb Lane's yunani tibb shop is the Asian

Sweet Centre, which, significantly, has opened a

subsidiary Sweet Centre fish and chip shop. Commerce

and the laws of the market can force such bridges

between communities; maybe the KS3 history options, in

places like Bradford, need a bit of compulsion too. 

 Martin Wainwright is the Guardian's northern editor.

He presents an account of Averroes' life and work on

Radio 4 at 11am today 

martin.wainwright@ guardian.co.uk 


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