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How Islam’s Golden Age Shaped the Modern World

By Lauren Monsen | Staff Writer | 24 September 2012
Ben Kingsley, dressed as 13th-century engineer and inventor al-Jazari (Courtesy of 1001 Inventions)

Actor Ben Kingsley, in the role of 13th-century engineer and inventor al-Jazari, appears in a short film that greets visitors to the 1001 Inventions exhibition.

Washington — What do cameras, coffee, toothbrushes and perfume have in common? All of them trace their origins to the Golden Age of Muslim civilization, an era of scientific breakthroughs made possible because scientists and inventors were able to work in an environment of intellectual freedom.

Cameras and other widely used items are just a few of the innovations showcased by 1001 Inventions: Discover the Golden Age of Muslim Civilization, a traveling exhibition that opened August 3 at the National Geographic Museum in Washington. Running until February 3, 2013, 1001 Inventions reveals how science and technology flourished in the Islamic world during a period that stretched from the seventh to the 17th century.

Islamic culture reached from southern Spain to China and drew on scholars of many faiths who built on the knowledge of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans to make breakthroughs that paved the way for the Renaissance. According to Diane Perlov, senior vice president of exhibit development at the California Science Center, where the exhibition ran from May 27, 2011, through March 2012, 1001 Inventions “conveys the multicultural roots of modern science” and demonstrates strong links between Western and non-Western societies.

The show, which debuted in London and moved to Istanbul, New York and Los Angeles before opening in Washington, explores advances in engineering, navigation, architecture, mathematics and medicine, along with items of Islamic provenance now commonly found in households everywhere.

Exhibition curator Salim al-Hassani, professor emeritus at the University of Manchester in Great Britain, stressed the “historical amnesia about the scientific and cultural advancement that took place during the Middle Ages,” which 1001 Inventions aims to correct.

Visitors can study a 5-meter-high working replica of the 13th-century Elephant Clock, named for the carved elephant that forms its base. Designed by a mechanical engineer called al-Jazari, who was from an area that is now southern Turkey, the cross-cultural emblem features Chinese dragons, an Egyptian phoenix and wooden robots wearing Arab turbans.

The exhibition’s interactive displays include a computer game “where you travel an ancient trade route making decisions about which items to exchange in which markets,” said Perlov. “Guests learn how not only goods and services traveled throughout the world, but how information and knowledge spread this way.”

In addition, visitors can “direct a figure to walk through a modern house and find all the items that trace their roots back” to early Muslim civilization, she said. “A bell rings when they find each item such as perfume, soap, toothbrush, cosmetics and coffee.”

Visitors learn about innovators from the classical Islamic world, such as Princess Fatima al-Fihri, who founded the first modern (multi-subject, multi-faculty, open to men and women) university in 859, located in Fez, Morocco. Another innovator — the Egyptian physicist Alhazen, born in 965 — laid the foundation for the modern understanding of optics. Alhazen also invented the camera obscura, a precursor to the modern camera.

The Andalusian physician al-Zahrawi (936–1013) was the first surgeon to systematically use catgut sutures (actually derived from sheep intestines). Al-Zahrawi developed sophisticated surgical instruments, including scalpels, syringes, forceps and surgical needles. Although similar instruments are now created from materials that far surpass those available to early surgeons, “the design and practicality of the tools remain the same,” said al-Hassani.

“One of the most important messages from this exhibition is about the shared scientific heritage of humanity,” he said. “We hope that [1001 Inventions] will inspire children of all backgrounds to explore careers in science and technology.

“Today, we live in a global age, with science and ideas shared across continents, and this occurred in the past, as well,” al-Hassani explained. “Men and women of many different faiths — and none — worked together within Muslim civilization in order to advance our understanding of the world.”

To learn more about the exhibition, visit the 1001 Inventions website.

Replica of the 13th-century Elephant Clock, with wooden robot astride carved elephant (Courtesy of 1001 Inventions)

A working replica of al-Jazari's famed Elephant Clock, which keeps accurate time via elaborate internal mechanisms, features turbaned robots with synchronized movements.