Monday, June 23, 2014

Morgan - Lost History

I was so enthused after reading Michael Morgan's Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers, and Artists (2007) that I searched for other reviews to make sure I wasn't missing something - I didn't so I heartily encourage readers to dig in for an introduction to a different view of Islam than is perpetuated in most contemporary media.  Morgan provided meticulous and authoritative documentation in this resource for those who want to understand Islam, its emergence, history, and movement throughout the Middle East, Europe, and Asia.

Each major segment of the book is introduced with a contemporary (21st century) story and then reflects back to the historical period related to that example.  The first example of this was in Chapter 1, “Rome’s children.”  The contemporary context was a family outing in Tours, in the Loire Valley of France.  The family, originally Moroccan and now living in France, had no idea that Tours was the site where much of the Muslim world’s technology advantage was transferred to Europe.  An early settlement in Roman Gaul, Tours was where Christian forces, led by Charles Martel, encountered the highly developed organization and technology of advancing Muslim military forces.  Against all odds, the Christian forces persevered and were the beneficiaries of Muslims leaving their devices and armaments behind as they fled in the night.  These abandoned resources would first be adopted in the military but would also spur other technology advances never before seen in Europe.

One of the most revealing aspects of Lost History is its tracking of the various groups within Islam.  Particularly of interest in this time of conflict between Sunni and Shiite in Iraq, Morgan traces the slaughter of the Umayyad (predecessor of Sunni) Caliphate in Damascus at the hands of the Abbasid (predecessor of Shiite) Caliphate which would result in Damascus being abandoned and the Umayyad starting their great center for learning and culture in Cordoba, Spain, and the Abbasids doing the same in Baghdad.  The Umayyad legacy will include support of the Christians of Spain who would become the linguists translating Latin, Greek and Hebrew classics into Arabic as well Jews fleeing Visigoth persecution who would become the traders and financiers for their Muslim protectors.

The twists and turns that resulted in shifting centers for the Muslim world ultimately may have contributed to the advancement of Islamic learning and innovation.  Even though the conflicts destroyed many things, each time conflict arose, new centers emerged as knowledge and inquiry unfolded in mathematics, astronomy, geography, music, and medicine.  The revival of Lost History that Morgan recounts documents that much of the base on which European advancement was built was derived from the major centers of learning and advancement of the Muslim world.  The only thing that obscured this contribution was the Anglicization of names that Europeans could not pronounce, denying the real benefactors their rightful place in intellectual history.

Although Lost History charts many conflicts and battles both within Islam as well as across other religions (most notably Judaism and Christianity), there have been multiple voices within Islam that declared the importance of inter-faith understanding and cooperation, including the Prophet Muhammad himself.  Sufi mystic Jalal ad-Din al-Rumi, declared in mid-13th century (page 243):
In the adorations and benedictions of righteous men
The praises of all the prophets are kneaded together,
All their praises are mingled into one stream,
All the vessels are emptied into one ewer.
Because He that is praised is, in fact, only One.
In this respect all religions are only one religion.
Because all praises are directed toward God’s Light,
These various forms and figures are borrowed from it.

The last chapter, “Enlightened Leadership,” is particularly poignant in advocating a view of leadership that most leadership educators today would quickly endorse.  It gives credit for the many advancements in knowledge and understanding throughout the period so heavily influenced by Islam to a vision of leadership based on “democratic behavior, consensus building, conflict resolution and responsiveness to public opinion.” (page 254)  Abu Bakr, the first Caliph to follow the Prophet Muhammad, left a legacy of “humility, compromise, incorruptibility, and a dedication to charity and public welfare” (page 255) that would shape the faithful practice of Islam for the 7th century as well as today.

Lost History was not only an informative read but it stimulated deep hope that Islam’s future will unfold to embrace the intellectual vigor, commitment to peaceful coexistence, and humble leadership that have echoed among its Muslim brothers and sisters over the ages.

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