Obama: Thank Islam?! And a Review of PBS Special "Empires"

Obama's speech in Cairo is cause for much political discussion, but I'll leave that to others. I want to highlight only one section:
As a student of history, I also know civilization's debt to Islam. It was Islam - at places like Al-Azhar University - that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe's Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed. Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation. And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality.
Really? Obama has read some interesting history books, because this is just silly.

In fact, it sounds a lot like a video I had to watch in college back in 2006; a PBS special from a few years back called "Islam: Empire of Faith." My review of that video should be able to serve double-duty as a response to Obama.

As such a wonderfully artistic production which depicts Islamic architecture, artisan creations, and tasteful reenactments, perhaps PBS should have divested their film’s budget into less aggrandizement of the Islamic culture and placed more investment into historical analysis. "Islam: Empire of Faith" (hereafter, "Empire") is seemingly satirical as it exemplifies bias and historical revisionism at its worst. Due to the brevity of this review, a full examination of the documentary will not be allowed, but following are a few examples of the manipulation of the facts.

Islam is hailed as “the greatest contributor to Western Civilization.” While to say that Islam had no impact on Western Civilization would be seriously remiss, "Empire" has made a dreadful overstatement of fact. (Indeed, one could make the case for the reverse of this statement much easier.) For "Empire" to support its case, is must selectively report the historical narrative, and disingenuously present much of the evidence found therein. One of the many ways the film evidences the impact of Islam on the rest of civilization is in the field of science and technology. For instance, the film presents the waterworks, accompanying the images with the implicit claim that no one had thought of such innovations, such as the mass transit of water, prior to the Muslims. However, many Roman cities had functioning sewer systems and vast aqueducts dating from the height of the Roman Empire, several centuries earlier.

While it is quite commendable that the Muslims began revisiting and experimenting with the claims of the Greek and Roman classics, that does not make them necessarily inventive or innovative. Yet, it is claimed in "Empire" that Islam was, in essence, the progenitor of the scientific method by revisiting many of these experiments, when they were simply utilizing Aristotle’s Inductive-Deductive method from the fourth century BC, as well as similar methods utilized in the intervening centuries. Their mathematics were no more original, as the Egyptians and many other Ancient Near-Eastern cultures have previously developed forms of algebra, trigonometry, and the like. The theories of Pythagoras and the grander and laser-like precision of the several-ton stones of the pyramids amply show the previous leaps in the world of trigonometry; algebra and geometry date back to the most ancient of cultures known – the Sumerians. "Empire" seems forgetful of many of the wonders of the ancient world, including the mind-boggling miles of Roman aqueducts delivering water through a “simple” sloping design. What "Empire" also neglects is the decline of scientific interest in Islam, as expansionism became a more important goal.

The art of the Muslim world are most certainly marvelous, a fact that cannot nor should not be denied. Again, though, PBS tries to make more of a case than needs to be made, by exploring and evaluating the various artisans’ abilities against Western works. In a more humorous attempt to contrast Muslim artwork to the Byzantine and European pieces of the time, the consultants in the film remark how humble Mohammed is presented, and comment how indistinguishable he is due to the artists’ shared desire to present him as only human. These observations are made while images of Mohammed from the early period appear on the screen, with Mohammed clearly depicted as larger than his encampment of devotees, being, at times, surrounded with an aura of flames or light.

It is true that Islam differed from Christianity in this respect – Christianity spread through missions, sending individuals to spread the message of the Gospel to particular cultures. While later, some Catholic, Anglican, and other organizations would try to change a particular culture in addition to missions work, the goal was never to create an “empire” in the strictest political sense. Yet the Muslims succeeded in this regard – not through the use of missionaries, but through the use of the sword. Thus, while the Muslim spoke of the futuh, the “openings,” as opportunity for the spread of Islam, those in the path of the “openings” inevitably learned the horror of the word as the sword of Allah went forth to conquer all in its path.

As to be expected, the purpose and actions of the Crusaders are misreported. Thankfully, "Empire" does record the actions of at least one fanatical Muslim, who burned the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in 1005 AD. Strangely, though, "Empire" considers this the cause of the Crusades, which, in reality, do not begin for ninety more years. The experts given air time in the film think the start of the Crusades as odd, considering the “tolerance” of the Muslims in Jerusalem to the Christians. What these experts do not know, or choose not to report, is that the Christians were literally crucified in Jerusalem when the Muslims marched in centuries before, banned crosses from buildings, and forced all non-Muslims to pay special taxes, while continuously oppressing those unfortunate enough to find themselves in the Muslim society. The Crusades, therefore, were a reaction to the Muslims’ intolerance to other faiths.

The truth of the matter is that Muslims were no more tolerant of other faiths than they are today in the Sudan; nor were they gracious conquerors. The Ottoman Turks were represented as a group who magnanimously “recruited” young boys of their conquered nations in the Balkans, giving them an education “par excellence.” To that there is no doubt, for many of these same janissaries were sent back to their own people in Bulgaria and other nations to terrorize them, brainwashed in their actions. While the Muslims may report that these were “recruitments,” the conquered nationals had another term: “blood taxes.”[1]

This was not just in the north, for Africa was raped of her people as well. While Europeans were guilty of beginning to go to the “dark continent” to perform “recruitment” of their own, it was actually the Muslims (and some tribal leaders who stood to profit) who provided European and the American ships blacks for slavery. Indeed, and it would not be just to the white man that blacks were provided, for many Muslims kept slaves of their own.

It is difficult to choose which words best describe this video. On the one hand, both the soundtrack and the cinematography of the documentary left nothing to desire. There is much truth in the reporting of the art and architecture of Islam, and the producers should be praised for providing such wonderful images. On the other hand, there is such a great deal of fluff and misreporting in the film that the former fades into insignificance. The film even presents the old misconception that Europe endured a time of “dark ages,” presenting the masses as huddling in the gloomy night for warmth while C√≥rdoba had streetlights and true civilization. One would watch the film and believe that Islam saved Europe by civilizing her. The implication is embarrassing. Perhaps the reason for such bias is fear of Muslim retaliation, in light of recent rioting and murders over the last several years over the slightest offense. One can only wonder.
[1] “THE BULGARIAN PEOPLE UNDER THE RULE OF THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE 15th-l8th CC.” Bulgaria.com: History of Bulgaria. http://www.bulgaria.com/history/bulgaria/under.html (accessed May 3, 2006).

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