Fundamental losses

Nov 27th, 2007 | By | Category: Spirituality

John Humphrys’ In God we Doubt is troubling. John Humphrys is always reassuring, but he seems to encounter a world filled with fundamentalists. There are the Christians who believe the world began 6,000 years ago (as Mr Humphrys points out, this is a thousand years after the Sumerians invented glue); there are the Moslems who wish to re-establish the Caliphate under Sharia law; and there are the atheists who insist nothing means anything anyway because we are just an accident of genetic combinations.

What gets lost in any conflict is truth, and the last time Christians got into crusading mode, a lot of truth got lost. Des Ekin’s 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, should be compulsory reading for western politicians, particularly those now engaging in the presidential campaign in the United States.

This is the sort of loss we suffer when the fundamentalists take charge. Some of those captured in 1631 may have chosen never to return to Ireland, even when the opportunity arose, it’s easy to see why. Here’s Ekin’s description of a world very different from Western Europe in the 17th Century:

“Compared to European capitals, Algiers was 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, Algiers had 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 of Europe, and had been for centuries. In Baghdad, a thousand years earlier, medical students had been taught the basics of modern anatomy, pharmacology and toxicology. From Cairo to Cordoba, 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, Algiers had 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 of Northern Europe to 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.”

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