Teaching children how Muslim sages saved European philosophy could bridge a modern culture gap
HALFWAY down the old Band of Gold prostitutes’ beat in Lumb Lane, Bradford, there is an Asian-owned chemist’s shop advertising yunani tibb. Few people give the two words a second glance, but they are a key to a marvellous but scandalously little-known embrace between those uneasy and quarrelsome neighbours, Islam and the west.
Tibb means “medicine” in Urdu, yunani means “Greek” and the phrase comes straight from the centuries when
the Muslim world saved the bedrock of western European culture, the learning of Athens. Without the work of a 500-year succession of Islamic sages, we would have lost the essence of Aristotle, much of Plato and scores of other ancients.
The year was AD997 and the text – central to the subsequent development of philosophy – had long been lost and unknown in western Europe.
The story of this priceless heritage’s return home, slung in the saddlebags of camels on the long caravans to Cairo, Fez and the cities of Moorish Spain, is well known to scholars. Hundreds of learned books are available and if you key in Ibn Sina or his westernised name Avicenna on an internet search engine you will come up with about 28,800 references. But the story, so relevant to the world today, has never been admitted to everyday British culture.
There are simple reasons for this too – medieval Christian bigotry, the post-Renaissance belief in the glory of Europe – but a lack of excitement in the story is not one of them. Umberto Eco proved that in the global bestseller, The Name of the Rose. His demented monk Jorge smears poison on a lost work of Aristotle and contemptuously spits out the name of “the Arab, Averroes” – the scholar Ibn Rushd of Cordoba, the last link in the journey of Greek learning back to the west.
The national curriculum reformers, to their credit, have seen the gap and tried to fill it, but their good intentions easily get lost. How many pupils in Britain take key stage 3’s option on Islamic civilisation
AD600-1600 or the shorter, 15-hour “scheme of work” project on the cultural achievements of Islamic civilisation?
The Department for Education does not know; neither, more disturbingly, do the education authorities in a place like Bradford where Muslims and others desperately need common ground. In his report on the Yorkshire city’s divided communities last year, Lord Ouseley inveighed against the national curriculum’s shortcomings and demanded “effective learning environments in which racial differences are seen positively by pupils, underpinned by knowledge and understanding”.
He had good ideas, including a local Bradford citizenship section to be added to the national curriculum’s citizenship module, which becomes compulsory from September. But the simpler option of highlighting those KS3 options, which offer just that “knowledge and understanding”, didn’t figure. Did Ouseley and his researchers know they were there?
The need for them, and for simple, readable textbooks on both courses, is not just a matter for the white community; the story has been marginalised in Islamic culture as well. A straw poll of British Asian students in Bradford produces the occasional cautious nod at the name Ibn Sina but none for Ibn Maimoun (Maimonides, Saladin’s doctor and the greatest Jewish scholar of the Arabic world); and none for Ibn Rushd.
Like Jorge, traditionalist Muslims have long found the sage of Cordoba disturbing and hard to explain to students in the madrassa. What can they make of a man who complained that curbs on women wasted the potential of half the population of the Islamic world – and this way back in the 12th century? A man whose books, for a time, were proscribed by Christian and Muslim authorities alike?
And so we fumble on, with both communities stuck in the world memorably summarised by Dr Johnson’s explanation of why Richard Knolles’ book, A Generall Historie of the Turkes (1603), sank without trace. The author, said Johnson, “employed his genius upon a foreign and uninteresting subject and recounted enterprises and revolutions of which none desire to be informed”.
Next to Lumb Lane’s yunani tibb shop is the Asian Sweet Centre, which, significantly, has opened a subsidiary Sweet Centre fish and chip shop. Commerce and the laws of the market can force such bridges between communities; maybe the KS3 history options, in places like Bradford, need a bit of compulsion too.
Martin Wainwright is the Guardian‘s northern editor. He can be reached at
Friday July 26, 2002