Note: The following post has been edited in response to criticism from Sonja Brentjes. A discussion of the edits is available here.
In the current issue of Skeptical Inquirer (November/December 2012), Taner Edis and Sonja Brentjes have an interesting article challenging the traveling British exhibition 1001 Inventions on the great inventions of the Golden Age of Islam. The two authors find the exhibit offensive because it suggests that medieval and early modern Muslim societies engaged in technological and intellectual investigation that contributed to later European scientific developments. I find the article difficult because if combines serious criticism of the exhibit’s mistakes and flaws with what seems very much like a politically-motivated philosophical disagreement with the presence of Islam in science, which in turn colors much of their discussion.
Edis, a Turkish-American physicist, has taken political positions against Islamism and wrote a book called The Illusion of Harmony which examined the tension in Islamic societies between science and religion. Brentjes, a historian of science, has published widely on science in Islam.
The two complain that the exhibit’s catalog depicts the Andalusian scholar Abbas ibn Firnas (810-887 CE) as the first human to make a successful flight based upon a non-contemporary chronicle. This is what they say:
I am no expert on early modern Islamic historiography, but I know how to read and thus have a good idea when citations to old books don't sound quite right.
The authors do not cite their sources and instead mention only Wikipedia as a way of checking the validity of their claim. The Wikipedia article, which quotes the “Moroccan” chronicle, makes plain that Edis and Brentjes have misunderstood the original early modern text, which, in fact, more closely (though not perfectly) supports the version given by 1001 Inventions. I do not have access to the exhibit catalog they cite (the website does not contain these same claims), so I have to trust that the authors accurately report the catalog’s contents. However, the website clearly explains that it believes Ibn Firnas flew in a “glider” not by “powered flight,” so I am not so certain the two authors accurately reflect the catalog’s intent.
So, let’s examine the “Moroccan chronicle,” which the authors do not bother to identify. This is the Breath of Perfume by Abu-l-’Abbas Ahmad ibn Mohammed al-Maqqari (c. 1578-1632), who was born in what is now Algeria and lived variously in Morocco, Syria, and Egypt. He wrote his history of Muslim Iberia, in which the Ibn Firnas material appears, during a year spent living in Cairo shortly before his death (which happened during a planned move back to Damascus). Therefore, the book is very ambiguously a “Moroccan” chronicle.
Maqqari was a careful historian, and he utilized many sources dating back to medieval times in preparing his work, which was less a history as we think of it today than a series of summaries of these earlier authors. It is fair to criticize 1001 Inventions for having no contemporary source for Ibn Firnas’ flight, but if we do so, we must also lose almost half of our knowledge of pre-Christian authors—not to mention much of the Greek science the authors clearly prefer to Muslim science—preserved as it is in summaries made by Late Antique writers or the Christian Byzantines, sometimes up to a thousand years after the fact. Consider this: Textbooks discuss Eratosthenes and his effort to measure the earth’s circumference, yet we have no firsthand account of this. Instead, we have a summary of Eratosthenes’ work made by Cleomedes around 400 CE—six centuries after the fact.
Edis and Brentjes appear to have read only the Wikipedia quotation (marked in darker green below), which gives just the story without context and makes it sound like this story relies on Maqqari’s authority. Now, here’s the thing: In the original work, Maqqari makes amply clear that he was drawing on more ancient sources, as the full passage makes plain. It is lengthy, but essential for understanding the historiography of the claim:
The Ibn Said mentioned above was an ninth century Andalusian poet and collector of historical material, who therefore takes knowledge of the story back to the time of Ibn Firnas, and in the right geographical area. This Ibn Said drew on even older sources, making it more than likely that he represents a continuous textual tradition about Ibn Firnas that we can be reasonably confident represents something close to reality, though of course this cannot be proved conclusively short of Ibn Firnas’ glider turning up in Spain. (Nor, for that matter, can most ancient scientific achievements be proved to have existed independently of the texts which record them, from Hero of Alexandria’s steam engine to Archimedes’ mirror-beam to Greek fire. The authors have no trouble with the evidence for Greek science, however, because it supports their preferred historical narrative.)
But even if it doesn’t record a real event, the exhibit is wrong on the details and Edis and Brentjes fail to object to the presentation of these details as grounded in the text, implying accuracy. Maqqari’s chronicle does not state that Ibn Firnas flew in “powered flight” (like an airplane) but rather says he jumped from on high. Nor does he say that Ibn Firnas constructed wings of eagle feathers. Maqqari states that Ibn Firnas covered himself in eagle feathers and used separate wings which were strapped to him. (Others assume these wings also had feather covering, but the text is silent on this.) We cannot know from this description how the wings were shaped, but Maqqari’s description is consistent with a crude glider that bore its occupant downward in a swift, largely uncontrolled descent. The only inconsistency is that Maqqari states that Ibn Firnas’ flight ended where it began, which is difficult (though not impossible) to envision given the laws of physics.
A later jumper, Hezarfen Ahmet Çelebi, tried to replicate Ibn Firnas’ feat in Constantinople, but Edis and Brentjes do not believe this man existed either because the only evidence comes from “a chronicler” rather than—I’m not sure what. This story, though, is problematic since the “chronicle” (again not named—it’s Evliyâ Çelebi’s Seyahatname) says Çelebi used “eagle wings” to fly by the “force of the wind,” which later writers have interpreted as a glider using wind power to soar. This is, of course, an interpretation and cannot be proved from the text.
According to Edis and Brentjes, “flight with muscle-powered wings is physically impossible. And yet, 1001 Inventions not only endorses notoriously unreliable accounts but indulges in lengthy and purely fictional elaborations.” Therefore, the Maqqari story must be false because of the authors’ assumed conclusion about the impossibility of human-powered flight.
I cannot speak to the elaborations since the authors do not provide the catalog text to compare with Maqqari’s account, but Maqqari never says that the wings were powered by muscles. This is the two authors’ reading into the account what is not there. (Birds can soar as well as flap, so the analogy to a bird does not conclusively prove flapping since gliders soar. This is why in his history of aviation, Taking Flight (2003), Richard P. Hallion discusses how Maqqari’s account is consistent with a primitive glider acting something like a “cloak-parachute.”)
The long and short of it is that Edis and Brentjes are right to point out the layers of assumption and interpretation that have been erected atop Maqqari’s text in service of the exhibit’s goals, but they are wrong to erect their own counter-assumptions in order to support their ideological views. Their article makes plain that they believe that it is intellectual fraud to recognize the intellectual achievements of the medieval Muslim world as “science” or to suggest that these achievements helped develop modern (read: Western) science. (The Reconquista and the Crusades brought many Islamic ideas back to Europe, where they did help spark the Renaissance.)
I also cannot get from the exhibit the notion the authors read into it that it claims “Muslims need only to reinstate medieval conceptions of nature and medieval habits of thought in order to become creatively engaged in cutting-edge science and technology.” Try reading that in another context to see how culturally biased this sounds: An exhibit on ancient Chinese inventions tells the Chinese that they need only reinstate the Emperor and the Great Wall in order to overtake the West! An exhibit on medieval European trade tells the Europeans that they need only reinstate universal Catholicism and mercantilism to fix the Greek debt crisis!
They’re reading way too much into the exhibit based, it appears, on their own personal views about and experiences with contemporary Islamic intolerance and their own stated desire to see more secularism in the Islamic world.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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