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Unearthing Islam's hidden history

A few days after 9/11, Michael H. Morgan, author and founder of New Foundations for Peace NGO, was asked to write a speech for a business corporation. The speech was intended to focus primarily on business, but it was impossible to avoid addressing the attack. And thus, Morgan decided to bridge the massive, growing gap …


A few days after 9/11, Michael H. Morgan, author and founder of New Foundations for Peace NGO, was asked to write a speech for a business corporation. The speech was intended to focus primarily on business, but it was impossible to avoid addressing the attack. And thus, Morgan decided to bridge the massive, growing gap between Muslims and non-Muslims at the time by illustrating the rich story of the Islamic world.

The idea and research required to write the speech prompted Morgan to delve deeper into Islamic history and culture; a civilization where Muslims, Christians and Jews co-existed peacefully and where some of the greatest advancements in sciences and arts were accomplished.

The outcome of Morgan’s extensive research was documented in his last book, published by National Geographic, “Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers, and Artists which has just been translated into Arabic by Egyptian publishing house Nahdet Masr.

Morgan – author of “The Twilight War , and co-author with undersea explorer Robert Ballard of “Collision with History: The Search for John F. Kennedy’s PT-109 , and “Graveyards of the Pacific – was in Egypt last week to discuss his book.

Morgan sat down with Daily News Egypt at the American Embassy’s headquarters in Garden City:

Daily News Egypt: What first drew you to writing and literature?Michael H. Morgan: My first love is fiction, but because there was a rising interest in non-fiction written in fictional narrative style, my agent and editors told me that I should do that. I used that approach in writing about World War 2 battles and so on.

This is a very different kind of book that uses the same approach though. It’s a conventional, historical approach; it’s an attempt to give a simple, clear narrative for a very long and complicated subject.

The thing that interests me about history is not in recitation of facts and footnotes, it’s telling history from an individual, human, somewhat interpretive standpoint, and that’s what I did with “Lost History and my other books.

DNE: What piqued your interest in Islamic history?MM: When I went to Turkey to organize the Pegasus Prize for Literature there, I met a number of Turkish writers who introduced me to Ottoman history and Sufism. I did a lot of research and reading, which gave me a very different view of this culture than the one I’ve been hearing about in the media, even before 9/11. The focus there [the US] tends to be on the latest bombings, Islamic extremism, and while it’s real, I was concerned that Americans were not being given a broad context in which to evaluate this stuff.

When I decided to write the book, there was some debate among some of the editors about whether I was conveying religious propaganda. I had to reassure them that I’m not a Muslim, I’m not motivated by a faith-based approach. It’s a fact-based approach, and there’s a huge body of facts that are not in popular awareness in the US.

DNE: What were the most startling discoveries you’ve made while writing the book?MM: There were so many discoveries. For example, it was really moving to me to find out that 1,200 years ago in Baghdad, there was very fierce debate about whether to follow the literal text of the Quran or to apply your intellectual abilities to different areas. In other words, the battle between rationalism and traditionalism.

That kind of debate is very similar to the debate we have in the US today between the creationists vs. the pure science group.

Our conventional view is that we’re the most advanced culture in the history of mankind, but to see that the same kind of tension existed in Baghdad 1,200 years ago was just moving. These people had a religion of intellect. I would argue that in some ways, the world has become anti-intellectual.

Intellectuals don’t have the same valued positions in the US or Europe as they once did. It’s more about mass media and commercialism and so on.

DNE: What about science?MM: Our conventional view is that empirical science was born in Athens, and gradually reawakened in renaissance Germany, Italy and England.

That’s an incomplete story. It’s true, but it only goes so far.

What I argue in my book is that real empirical science was born in Baghdad, Cairo, and Damascus and so on. The Greek theories were never really tested. They’re marvelous but the process of experimentation really didn’t find full expression till, let’s say, Al-Kindi and Jabir started to test theories through experimentation.

One scholar mentioned the other day that a lot of things happened between the discovery of Algebra under Al-Khwarizmi and a cell phone. Lots of intermediate stuff has happened, indeed. But mathematically, these things couldn’t have happened without those discoveries, and as brilliant as Greek mathematicians were, they were focused more on space relationships. They did experiment a bit with algebraic ideas, but they never formalized or called it anything.

DNE: What has happened then between this great civilization and the current state of the Arab world?MM: There are lots of possible explanations. Al-Andalus disappeared for several reasons. One, because the Omayyads started to break down, and it was seen as too liberal and open by certain liberals and open by certain groups in North Africa who invaded it and tried to introduce a more traditional form of religion.

This destabilized the whole thing, and that gave the opening to the Christian re-conquest. That’s when one of the most important centers for thinking and invention was lost.

More important was the Mongol invasion of Iran, central Asia and finally Iraq. It was the destruction of the great city of Baghdad, and I don’t think Baghdad ever really comes back from that till Sadam Hussien and the oil money.

Back then, a lot of Muslims took the Mongol invasion as a punishment from God for being too liberal, loose and not faithful enough, and it created a lot of doubt.

On the Shia side, the intellectual openness continued, and you can see stuff going on in Iran and India after the 13th century. The Sunni world, on the other hand, became more conservative.

Simultaneous to these changes, the renaissance and age of imperialism explodes. As late as 1600, Europe, Ottoman Turkey, India, Iran, China, they’re all roughly in the same intellectual and economic level. After the end, Europe traveled across the oceans, creating their empires in Africa, Asia and America.

By 1700, 25 percent of the world’s material wealth was in India. By 1850, that’s all transferred to the British Empire. By that time, it was all over. The game’s now controlled by the West and Europe and the Muslim countries were in a subordinate position, economically and politically.

Honestly though, I just don’t think there’s a simple answer to this question.

DNE: Will the book be released in other countries?MM: It’s going to be translated to German. It’s already been published in the UK, Japan, Korea and China. I’m glad about that because China has a lost history with Islam that’s been forgotten. There’s still a mixed feeling in China about Islamic culture.

Topics: Gamma Islamiya

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