FORGOTTEN ENLIGHTENMENTS

Unknown stories about Islam in contemporary art

Today, »Islam« and »enlightenment« seem to be in the greatest possible contradiction with one another. However, to demand that Islam must – as the Christian lands of the 18th century did – undertake a process of enlightenment, is to ignore history. In the Middle Ages and Early Modern Era, while witch burnings, heretics’ trials, book bannings and religious wars were taking place in Europe, the arts and sciences were flourishing in the Islamic world. In the 9th century, philosopher Abu Yusuf al-Kindi called for studying the ideas of other peoples. Polymaths like Abu Raihan al-Biruni and Ibn Sina (Latinised: Avicenna) spearheaded an »eastern Renaissance« in Central Asia 1000 years after Christ, established the principles of trigonometry and algebra, developed algorithms and astrolabes as well as the basis for modern medicine.

The rediscovery of the classical philosophy of Plato and Aristotle in Europe would have been unthinkable without Islamic libraries and scholars. Thus Raphael’s fresco »The School of Athens« pictures the Andalusian lawyer, doctor and influential commentator on Aristotle Ibn Rushd (Latinised: Averroes). According to Muhammad Sameer Murtaza, the West is indebted to Muslims not only for learning about the »Ancients« but also for the experimental spirit, which was still a foreign concept to the Greeks. The Quran itself calls for increasing knowledge through the observation of nature. Western modernity has benefited from the scientific achievements of these Aristotelian-rationalist currents of thought from Islam. It’s extent can hardly be overestimated, but over the centuries they became devalued, denied and invisible.

In the wake of European imperialism and colonialism, Islamic societies have made considerable efforts to adapt to the European model of progress, modernization, industrialization and education – sometimes to the point of self-abnegation. Some Countries have cut themselves off from their own intellectual tradition and literature through the introduction of the Latin alphabet. In this sense, fundamentalist Islam is a child of modernity, rejecting the ambiguity of pre-modern Muslim societies just as it does Western modernization.