New Beginnings at the Museum of Islamic Art

al sufi serpentarus

In a time when our political leaders are quite polarized and much of science is funded for private gain, it is good to be reminded that where we are today was because great thinkers worked to across language and distance barriers to share their knowledge.

Arabick Roots catalog from Islamic Museum Doha Qatar curator Dr. Rim Turkmani

The Islamic Museum in Doha recently held an exhibit called Arabick Roots.  While Europe was in its long medieval age, the Muslim “Golden Age” was from the 8th to the 16th century.   Much has been written about Europe’s 17th century Renaissance, the enlightened period where new philosophy relied on mathematical demonstration, proof and experimentation.  But Muslim science, medicine and culture’s influence on the West in the 17th and 18th centuries has not been highlighted extensively.

In the 17th century, Arabick meant languages written in Arabic letters such as Arabic, Persian and Ottoman.  Books, ceramics, paintings, astronomical compasses, and more books, demonstrated Europe’s interest in the scholarship of Iran, Iraq, India, Turkey, Syria and Egypt.  Much of the knowledge was spread using the British Levant Company’s trade routes with the east.  European astronomer Edmond Halley, chemist Robert Boyle, and mathematician John Wallis all knew Arabic so they could translate the Arabic texts directly.

The following were my favorite insights from the exhibit.

The Persian, Al-Razi (died 925AD), a pioneer in many areas, was the first doctor to describe and write about measles and smallpox.  Smallpox inoculation was used in the east.  Cassem Aga introduced the Royal Society to the practice in 1728 .   Although smallpox was never eradicated, Al-Razi’s book was still being translated into English as late as 1947 (by Dr. Richard Mead).

One book, out of the 10th Century physician, Abul Qasim Khalaf ibn al-Abbas al-Zhrawi’s (Abulcasis) 30-volume, medical encyclopedia, was displayed.  It was translated into Latin in the 15th century and in high demand by 17th century physicians.

Fixed Stars in the Constellation, Islamic Museum Doha v2

A copy of Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi’s 10th century star catalog, Forms of the Fixed Stars, was on display and compared to astronomer Johannes Hevelius’1690 constellation guide.

Al Sufi scorpio and taurus constellations

Lucky for me, the museum shop sold souvenirs with al-Sufi’s Taurus and Scorpio constellations drawings.

The Arabick exhibit pointed out something I did not read anywhere else on the internet.  Although al-Sufi  initially wrote Forms of the Fixed Stars, it was finished by his daughter, Arajoza Bint al-Sufi (Arajoza the daughter of al-Sufi), after his death.   That tidbit of information was pointed out by the exhibit’s curator, a woman, Dr. Rim Turkmani.

The Arabick exhibit was sponsored by Museum of Islamic Art and the Qatar Museum Authority, both are chaired by women.

To me, the exhibit not only emphasized the 17th century’s interest in Muslim science but it demonstrated that Muslim women have much to contribute in the areas of science and culture.  I thought making these points were good steps towards new beginnings.

Post Script.

I told my friend who used to live in Qatar about this post and asked whether she agreed it was a positive step.

She said, “I have a friend who still lives in Qatar.  She told me the other day that someone decided all perfumes with alcohol should be banned.  Can you imagine?  Only Arabic perfume will be left.  All the Dior perfumes those same, rich Qatari women buy will not be available now.  It will all be become black market.”

Perfume kiosk at Qatar Duty Free highlighting upcoming Chinese New Year of the snake

“But you can buy it in Duty Free.”

“Only on the way out of Qatar.  When you come back, that perfume becomes illegal.”

Okay – you can have the museum, but we’ll take your perfume.


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