Sultans of Science: An Opportunity Lost
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Sultans of Science
An Opportunity Lost

With the increasing interest in the Islamic world in recent decades, the public debate and popular discourse on the remarkable history of science and technology in the Islamic world have become ever more intense. Sometimes reflecting sober scholarship, at other times reflecting more polemical agendas, the blogosphere is abuzz with vitriol against or praise of the “Golden Age” of Islam. There are numerous popularizing books and documentaries, and now also a number of exhibitions devoted to science and technology in the Islamic world.1 One of these, a traveling exhibition known as The Sultans of Science, produced by MTE Studios, an Emirati “infotainment” company, was hosted in Oslo at the Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology (Norsk Teknisk Museum) during the second half of 2013.

The most severe critics of this and similar exhibitions maintain that in the realm of science and technology, Islam made little or no contribution. More moderate critics acknowledge a certain Islamic contribution but emphasize decline from the thirteenth century inherent in some of the core religious teachings or at least in intellectual and theological choices made [End Page 973] by Islamic scholars around 1200.2 Others, however, find significant and lasting Islamic contributions that maintained their creative power in many fields until the fifteenth, sixteenth, or seventeenth centuries, depending on the subject matter and the authority consulted.3 There are also those who argue that Islam by its nature encourages innovation and was far more progressive than medieval Christian society, and that the Islamic world made vast scientific and technological improvements that have been necessary prerequisites for the development of the modern world, for which the West should be grateful.4

What is striking about all these views is that they treat early Islamic society as inherently separate and essentially different from preceding and contemporary societies in a sort of inverted orientalism. For scholars familiar with late antique and early medieval society in both Europe and the Middle East, Islamic civilization was in many ways an obvious product of its times, deeply imprinted by previous civilizations. The concerns of Muslims and non-Muslims alike in early Islamic society were determined by a common historical background shared with other contemporary societies. It would be a tremendous advance if popularizing accounts began to reflect a common, shared history with all late antique and early medieval societies instead of treating the Islamic world as something inherently other. This is unfortunately not the case in the current exhibition, which will be evaluated on its scholarly and factual merits as well as the evident and implicit conceptual treatment of the social and historical context for the diffusion and evolution of science and technology.

A visitor ascending the stairs from the lobby to the main exhibition floor is immediately struck by the suspended model of winged ninth-century Andalusian polymath ‘Abbas Ibn Firnas gliding through the air. Celebrated [End Page 974] for his experiments with flight in the modern Islamic world, the details are in fact quite obscure: this section of the exhibition seems in part to be based on Lynn White jr.’s seminal 1961 article in this journal on Anglo-Saxon aviator Eilmer of Malmesbury. White quoted a somewhat free English translation from 1840 by Pascual de Gayangos of the seventeenth-century North African historian al-Maqqari, whose account forms three lines of Arabic in the Leiden edition (plus a line of poetry). Furthermore, not noted by White, the account in near-contemporary Ibn Hayyan’s Al-Muqtabis (eleventh century) had already been discovered and published in Paris in 1937, and has since appeared in numerous editions in Beirut, Cairo, and Madrid. While confirming some details in (and probably forming the basis of) al-Maqqari’s account, there has been fairly little academic interest in Ibn Firnas’s flight since then, presumably because both texts are extremely short and provide few concrete details to work from. Despite the modest evidence, outdated scholarly foundations, and considerable criticism and debate in the wake of a similar presentation in 1001 Inventions (which did take Ibn Hayyan into account), Ibn Firnas’s flight nevertheless introduces the whole exhibition.

Explanatory panels in Norwegian...