In a few blog posts in the past (here and here), I had talked about a museum exhibit and book attached to a book, 1001 Inventions, that was geared to show the scientific prowess of Arab or Muslim scholars in the Middle Ages. While it had a reasonable and admirable goal, it proved to be terrible history and ultimately religio-political apologetic. My own critical look at it was ultimately due to a review of the same book in Skeptical Inquirer by Taner Edis and Sonja Brentjes.
Now Prof. Brentjes has written a longer, academic review of the book. And as flawed as I thought the book way, I didn’t realize it was this bad.
If you are unfamiliar with the exhibit and book on the subject, the review should help fill you in on the pertinent details, including the support it has had by groups such as the National Geographic Society. There was also a fair bit I learned from it about science in the medieval Islamicate, and more that I want to learn because I don’t know about many things. For example, I had thought that the algebra I learned in high school was something that was in many ways a product of Arab-speaking mathematicians. However, apparently the ways algebra was done then is significantly different that how we do things. This isn’t to diminish the contributions of Arab or Muslim mathematicians, but it certainly recontextualizes things for me. Now I want to understand how different things were and better understand the how and why to the changes to algebra.
The review is long, but worth it, with plenty of quotations of the offending work. Learn how not to do history as well as learn a bit of something that to me is fascinating. Just one more thing I’ll need to get into when I go to the library.
But this won’t be the end of the professional responses to this exhibit and book. Prof. Brentjes is also working on an edited volume, to which I am happily contributing to, but more on that as things develop.