Learning history means not repeating it

Nov 11th, 2006 | By | Category: International

Perhaps when the war in Iraq is resolved and there is peace in the Middle East, there will be an opportunity for a re-engagement between Islam and the West.We went different ways a millennium ago, much to the detriment of Europe.Des Ekin in his excellent book The Stolen Village telling of the raid on Baltimore, Co Cork in 1631 in which 107 people were taken away as slaves by the corsairs, describes why some of them may have chosen never to return to Ireland, even when the opportunity arose.

“Compared to European capitals,Algierswas a healthy city. Its cobbled streets were kept clean by an army of workers. In an era when Londoners emptied their bedpans into the street,Algiershad piped sewage and fresh running water – James Cathcart described this as ‘clear as crystal’.

Europeans ridiculed the citizens’ personal hygiene, with one Frenchman deriding the ‘foolish conceit’ of washing before meals.

Islamic medical science was far ahead ofEurope, and had been for centuries. InBaghdad, a thousand years earlier, medical students had been taught the basics of modern anatomy, pharmacology and toxicology. FromCairotoCordoba, doctors had diagnosed diseases as complex as meningitis.

Sophisticated anaesthetics had turned surgery into an art. Abulcasis, who died in 1013, described more than two hundred fine surgical instruments that could remove kidney stones, strip varicose veins, and excise cancer tumours.Islamic surgeons could even extract eye cataracts by suction through a hollow metallic needle.

While Europeans were tackling the Black Death through self-flagellation, physicians like Ibn Khatima had discovered that minuscule organisms could invade the body and cause disease.

And long before Jenner ‘discovered’ vaccination, Turkish women, were routinely using small doses of cowpox to protect their faces against smallpox.

A diet rich in vegetables also helped to promote health.The climate was kind and the fields produced prolific yields. According to the Spanish monk Haedo,Algiershad an ‘infinite number of gardens and vineyards filled with lemon, orange and lime trees [and] flowers of every kind.’

Even the weather was pleasant by North African standards. ‘The climate in this country is remarkably delightful,’ John Foss wrote. ‘The air is pure and serene’.

All these factors had a measurable effect on quality of life and longevity. Even then, Algerines were described as healthier and longer-lived than Europeans . . .

The Algerine slave trade left another type of legacy: the opening ofNorthern Europeto Islamic influences. Returning captives . . . must have brought back tales of an equal-opportunity society in which wealth and status was determined by ability rather than by accident of birth. These were dangerous ideas. For instance, Islamist ideals of equality may have indirectly influenced the creators of the American Declaration of Independence.

Eastern learning shook western science to its foundations. European scholars pored through Islamic writings, gaining insights into chemistry, mathematics, astronomy and medicine. Again, this was dangerous knowledge. The English academic Dr Henry Stubbe (1632-1676), who openly admitted his debt to Islamic teachings, had his work suppressed and was jailed for heresy.”

It would be sad if the opening of the third millennium was marked by a repeat of the mistakes of a thousand years ago.

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