elopment The Greek Tragedy Ignoring Others’ Contributions

SOROOR AHMED analyses and criticises the Western attitude of not recognising the contributions of Indian, Chinese, Muslim and other peoples in the development of present civilizations.

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SOROOR AHMED analyses and criticises the Western attitude of not recognising the contributions of Indian, Chinese, Muslim and other peoples in the development of present civilizations.

Great civilizations of the past are today known by the contributions they had made in various walks of life, be it in the fields of art, culture, science, etc. We find the marks of those civilizations in the buildings, structures, roads, engineering or architectural marvels of those periods. Be it Pyramids of Egypt, Great Wall of China, Hanging Garden of Babylon, Taj Mahal and Jantar Mantar of India, various ancient wonders of Greece and Asia Minor etc they all have some scientific aspects too. True, almost all these structures were built to fulfil the wishes of the rulers of those times. Yet they give an idea of the application of science on them.
Not to speak of great living structures even the archaeological excavations – be they of the Indus Valley, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek, Roman or Inca Civilizations – help us understand those respective eras. Apart from these structural wonders, the arms – and in the later centuries ammunitions – of the relevant age also give us an idea of the development in the field of warfare.
The objective analysis of the engineering marvels of respective age would reveal that these developments took place across the world and were not confined to any one place. Similarly, if we analyze the history of discoveries and inventions we would find that they were made everywhere in the world: Greece, China, India and pre- or post-Islam Middle East and Central Asia. It was only in the last 300 years or so that Europe and subsequently United States made big strides in this direction.
Be it the field of astronomy, medicine, navigation, algebra, chemistry, etc. Muslims – no not only Arabs as it is generally made out but Turks, Persians, Central Asians all – as well as Chinese and even Indians had till the late Medieval Period been much ahead of the Europeans. It is not that their pre-Renaissance contributions have been totally blacked out by the historians of the West today. We do find their mention. But what intrigues one is the manner in which over-emphasis is given to the contributions made by the Greeks in all walks of life – literature, philosophy, science, history, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, etc.
We have very little idea about China of the time of the construction of the 4000 km long Great Wall. It was built to contain the enemies from the north and there is no doubt that the Wall was the product of Herculean effort as well as scientific mind of that period. Similarly in the later period we find the advancement of China in silk and paper making and print technology made over a thousand years ago. But we do not find mention of any individual Chinese name who made such enormous contributions in these fields. The only two Chinese about whom the world really knows is Fa Hein and Huien Tsang and that just because they visited India and history records their visits.
In contrast the world not only knows the names of all the Greek scholars of over 2,000-2,500 years ago but their contributions are available to us and we give credit to them. Herodotus is called the father of history, Hippocrates of medicine and who is not aware of Aristotle, Socrates, Pythagoras, Plato, Thales, Iliad, Homer to name some of them.
One can say that since China was not so centrally placed in the world the name of its scientists and inventors could not be known throughout the world. Besides, China – notwithstanding so much developments – did not go out conquering the world. Thus it was deprived of the opportunity to export its thoughts, ideas and developments to other places. Likewise then we have very little information about the builders of Pyramids, a great scientific wonder, though Egypt, unlike China, is a much more centrally located country.
The purpose of this article is not to undermine the contributions made by the Greeks, but to make it very clear that all the civilizations had their quota of great scholars. However, it is because of certain historic, political and geographical reasons that we could not recall their contributions. Greeks were lucky to be followed by Muslim Civilization about a thousand years later. The Muslims translated their works and advanced their scientific and literary works further. They were honest enough to give credit to the Greeks for whatever they had contributed.
Similarly there was interaction between Indian and Muslim scholars in those earlier centuries. That was not much possible with China because of the geographical distance. Yet be it the Muslims or Indians they always recognised the advancement made by Chinese in different fields. Though it is not Prophet Muhammad’s (peace and blessings of Allah be with him) Tradition (Hadith) yet many people attribute the saying, “One can go to China to pursue knowledge,” to him. Whether it is Hadith or not is not the subject here; what one wants to suggest is that China was important in the eyes of Arabs so far acquiring knowledge is concerned.
However, the translation of ancient Greek and Latin works in European languages in the Medieval period, a good part of which came through Arabic sources, brought about a big change in the world. It was the period of tussle between religion and science. Thus it was imperative for those in favour of latter to fall back on the pre-Christian Greek Civilization as after all it was a part of Europe. Even those siding with the Christian religion later took the help of Greek science, art and literature as they had no alternative left.
Thus the West European imperialists spread the contributions of the ancient Greeks far and wide in the world. The other civilizations did not get this opportunity so the people in general started believing that none else have made any contributions to the world civilization. However, the West was forced to recognize the scientific, philosophical and literary achievements and contributions of Muslims because they borrowed enormously from the latter. Be it Algebra, Chemistry, astronomy, navigation, etc., they had to, one way or the other accept the truth. But even in the case of Muslims the Europeans refused to concede that they made any big contribution after 1400 AD, when the truth is totally otherwise.
Ulugh Beg, the famous Central Asian ruler of 15th century was himself a great astronomer and scientist. He got built an observatory in Samarkand where he used to study the movements of stars and planets. Sher Shah, in just five years time, got built one of the greatest infrastructures of the era. The builders of East-West, North-South Corridors and Golden Quadrilateral are today finding how difficult it is to do the job in such a short period. Even as late as 18th century Tipu Sultan was busy promoting research on missile technology, rarest of the rare development then. All these developments were just not the dreams of certain rulers and did not take place in isolation but became possible because of the presence of great engineers, architects and scientists in those times. We do not know their names – we only know the times when they were built.
Most western writers have problem in using the word Muslim, therefore, they use the non-religious term Arab; when the truth is that the science developed in the entire Muslim world right from the advent of Islam to the late 18th or even early 19th century – and not only till 1400 C.E. as it is being falsely propagated.
The West refuses to accept the contributions of the Muslims – or for that matter even of the Chinese during the Medieval Ming dynasty – even after 14th century because it does not want to give credit to other non-European civilizations during this period. So, according to them, in the ancient world there was no match to the Greek Civilization, though they were pagans. Today too no one can compete with the West in any walk of life. They would not allow others to excel in the field of sports, literature, art, theatre etc. They revived the ancient mode of entertainment and gave it a new name the Olympic Games, when the fact is that the sports played in that period was totally different from what is being played now.
Keeping up everything Greek alive was also essential for the Europeans as this once great nation was, for about 350-400 years, under the rule of Turks in the Medieval period. When Greece finally came under the Turkish rule in the 15th century the country was considered the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Church, also known as the Eastern Church. So during the entire period the Europeans not only created a larger than life image of the entire ancient Greek Civilization but they repeatedly denigrated and derided the Turks as illiterate and barbaric people. They were prepared to give the Arabs the credit for some development, but not at all to the Turks. It needs to be reminded that it was essentially Turkish-dominated Muslim armies which defeated the Christian Europe in the Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries.