Thursday, January 12, 2012

Jonathan Lyons’s "Islam Through Western Eyes"

Author and independent scholar Jonathan Lyons has spent his professional life surveying the shifting boundaries between East and West. For more than two decades he was a foreign correspondent and editor for Reuters, much of it in the Islamic world. His previous publications include The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization and Answering Only to God: Faith and Freedom in Twenty-first-Century Iran, (co-authored with Geneive Abdo). He has a doctorate in sociology and now lives in Washington, D.C.

Lyons applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Islam Through Western Eyes: From the Crusades to the War on Terrorism. Here’s what he found:
Page 99 finds the reader immersed in the first of three broad themes explored in my book: Why the West seems congenitally unable to take Islamic achievements in science and philosophy seriously. The other themes revolve around Islam and women and Islam and violence.

Central to this mystery is the persistent notion that Islam is by its very nature irrational and opposed to the sciences, a view codified by the Orientalist scholarship of the 19th and early 20th centuries and very much with us today. It also reflects the West’s own historical experience in the formative years of “modern” science and ignores the distinct Islamic understanding of science and knowledge in general.

This trend first emerged with the secular humanists of what we call the Renaissance, who insisted that Muslim meddling in Greek science had to be eliminated and replaced by a return to “authentic” Greek texts in the place of Arabic translations. This fatally overlooked the enormous contributions made by Muslim scientists along the way, and, at times, led to a virtual comedy of errors.

Page 99 picks up this storyline:
The history of Western mapping of the Caspian Sea illustrates the point. Western cartographers, following Muslim examples, had successfully portrayed the Caspian’s primary north-south orientation by the fourteenth century. Less than two hundred years later, under the influence of the new translations of Ptolemy’s Geographia directly from the Greek, Europe’s mapmakers set aside the fruits of Arab research and reverted to the classical representation of the Caspian as running east-west. Only two centuries later was the damage finally undone – eight hundred years after the Muslims had first accurately charted the Caspian Sea.

In a similar vein, Renaissance Europe’s refusal to recognize and then master the underlying achievements of medieval Arabic science led to the widespread notion that the earth’s circumference was some 20 percent shorter than it actually is, an error not addressed by Western experimentation until the sixteenth century. Christopher Columbus used this shorter distance in planning his exploration of the New World, an error with almost fatal consequences.
The Western narrative of Islam and science, like those of Islam and women and Islam and violence, is part of a 1000-year-old discourse that shapes what we say – and more importantly, what we cannot say – about Islam and the Muslims. This, in turn, has left us intellectually unprepared and politically unable to respond to some of the most significant challenges of the twenty-first century: the global rise of Islamic political power; the more narrow emergence of religious violence and terrorism; and clashes between established cultural values and multicultural rights on the part of growing Muslim immigrant populations.
Learn more about Islam Through Western Eyes at the Columbia University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue