On a chilly July day in Lisbon in 1497, a minor nobleman named Vasco da Gama set out on a voyage to India. On May 20, 1498, he landed at Cochin. On board was an Arab pilot named Ahmed ibn Majid, who had guided him, using maps no European had ever seen before. His people called him ‘first Arab seaman’ and he was famous in the Persian Gulf as ‘The Lion of the Sea’. For centuries, sailors used his famous tome, The Book of the Benefits of the Principles of Seamanship, on oceanography to help in their navigations.
The Arabs were great journeymen. 14th century traveller Ibn Battuta wrote Al Rihla (The Journey) after visiting 44 countries, including India. In the 9th century, Abu al-Hasan al-Masudi wrote The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems after travelling to many countries, including India and China. Muhammad al-Idrisi drew the Tabula Rogeriana, considered the most accurate map of its time after his travels through Europe and Asia. These were ambassadors of a great civilisation at a time when Europeans were burning women as witches. Today, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, traveller of terror and the leader of the insurgent group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, is en route to Baghdad on his quest to turn the world into a gigantic Islamic state. More than 1,000 Shias have been slaughtered so far in his bloody spindrift. Meanwhile, in Baghdad, Shia vigilante groups have been carrying out revenge killings of Sunnis. It is a clash of civilisations—not the one Samuel Huntington envisaged, but between radical Islam and its ancient Arab heritage.
Much before the West began to eat off plates, the Arabs excelled in mathematics, physics, chemistry, literature, healthcare, commerce and travel. During the Dark Ages, when Europeans believed a man’s soul escaped through his nose if he sneezed, Arab libraries in the universities of Morocco, Mali and Egypt flourished. Great mathematician al-Khwarizmi founded algebra by applying the Hindu concept of zero on calculations. His contemporary al-Biruni accurately defined the latitudes, longtitudes and the magnitude of the earth’s circumference. Galileo was to come five centuries later, but Persian astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi had already discovered the Andromeda Galaxy. Centuries before Charles Darwin, 9th century zoologist al-Jahiz foresaw the law of evolution in the work, Book of Animals. Arab physician, dietician and ophthalmologist Ibn al-Nafis discovered that blood reached the left ventricle of the heart only after passing through the lung, 400 years before Western doctors discovered pulmonary capillaries. The world’s first sci-fi novel is credited to him. The Islamic Golden Age was open to the knowledge of other civilisations: Greek, Roman, Persian and Indian texts were studied. The great Arab philosopher Avicenna or Ibn Sīnā—who learned arithmetic from an Indian merchant—harmonised Aristotelianism, Neoplatonism and Islamic theology, and dominated Islamic philosophy. One of his greatest contributions was that true knowledge can be imparted only by a guru. Avicenna was also a great physician, whose famous work The Canon of Medicine was the most authoritative volume on medicine used by the West for more than 500 years. Until the Renaissance, Western surgeons referred to the works of Albucasis, considered the greatest medieval surgeon of Arabia. Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham was the world’s first scientist to discover that light reached the eye from the object, instead of the other way around, as was believed then. They were the heroes of their age, the enlightened envoys of resplendent Arabia and Islam.
Centuries have passed since the sun set on the other side of time. Today, the Islamic world’s contemporary icons like Osama have little in common with Avicenna or Ibn Battuta. It’s doubtful whether Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has ever read Aristotle. Hafiz Saeed probably thinks a sextant is pornography. The Arab world needs to rediscover its true heroes and reclaim their heritage from the barbarians who are rewriting its history in alphabets of blood.