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Gutenberg and the Date Palm

By Warner MacKenzie
Tuesday, December 11, 2007

During the Taleban rule in Afghanistan it was difficult to ignore the irony that, despite the banning of everything "modern" and "infidel", the Toyota pick-up truck and the AK-47 seemed to warrant a special dispensation. Television sets, cassette players, radios, and even kites were sought out and enthusiastically destroyed as un-Islamic symbols of evil Western influence, but not however, the Taleban's indispensable satellite phones. The taleban era was held up as an example of how an ideal Islamic state should look and function; which gives me cause to ponder just how those who crave a reconstructed seventh century Islamic caliphate, would structure their proposed utopia; the nitty-gritty if you will, of what qualifies as Islamically 'acceptable', or alternatively, that which would be subject to strictly enforced bans in everyday caliphate life.

Presumably, in the fields of medicine and pharmacology, they envisage a return to their Prophet's favoured practice of cupping as a treatment, and if that doesn't prove efficacious, perhaps a goodly draft of tepid camel's urine called for. Muhammad is reported to have prescribed black cumin seeds as "a cure for everything but death" so; if the caliphate's "new management" team plans to adhere strictly to seventh century Islamic medicine, or has any semblance of integrity or credibility, all the modern pharmaceutical companies will be need to be replaced by cumin seed farmers and camel urine bottlers.


Narrated Abu Qilaba: Anas said, "Some people of 'Ukl or 'Uraina tribe came to Medina and its climate did not suit them. So the Prophet ordered them to go to the herd of camels and to drink their milk and urine (as a medicine).
(Bukhari Volume 1, Book 4, Number 234.)

Narrated Abu Huraira: I heard Allah's Apostle saying, "There is healing in black cumin for all diseases except death."
(Sahih Bukhari vol. 7 book 71 #592).

Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah's Apostle said, "If a fly falls in the vessel of any of you, let him dip all of it (into the vessel) and then throw it away, for in one of its wings there is a disease and in the other there is healing (antidote for it) i e. the treatment for that disease."
(Bukhari Volume 7,Book 71, # 673.)

I strongly suspect however, that their fanciful 'perfect society' will not feature a return to the water-wells, camel transportation and herbal treatments of the seventh century. My guess is that they would opt for a hypocritically convenient and expedient appropriation of infidel
civilization—with a few superficial token changes—and a very thin coat of "Islamic green" paint. This became the case, throughout history, with every culture they came to rule; all the scientific, medical, and architectural achievements of the conquered people were later presented, ex post facto, as "Islamic" in origin.

Time has demonstrated that Muslims can always be relied on to rant about the evils of degenerate Western culture, whilst being almost entirely dependent on what that culture has produced. Bernard Lewis in his book 'What Went Wrong" points out that the Ottomans, who were the supreme power in Islam at the time, dug their heels in and refused to adopt the printing press for over 300 years after its invention, seeing it as a diabolical infidel contraption of no conceivable benefit to Islam. Their intransigence would seem to be supportive of the comment made by former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban, when he quipped "Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity"

Gutenberg's movable type printing process, and its far-reaching benefits, has proved to be one of the truly seminal inventions of human history, providing universal access to information and learning through the medium of the mass-produced book. In modern times, virtually every aspect of human advancement, in one way or another, has demonstrably relied on this one man's inspiration. Ideas and concepts of philosophical or social import were distributed far and wide. Medical, scientific and technological advances became freely available to the few who could read—and fostered a determination to extend literacy to those who could not— all this flowed directly from the availability of the printed word. It is often claimed that Gutenberg's invention was the prime enabler of the European renaissance.

The 'rightly guided' Caliph Umar, conversely, is reputed to have ordered the total destruction of books, by the hundreds of thousands, in the great library of Alexandria with the words "if what is written in them agrees with the Koran, they are not required; if it disagrees, they are not desired. Destroy them therefore." If this is indeed true, and is indicative of Muslim thinking, it is no wonder an Islamic renaissance has never occurred. Interestingly, the United Nations, in its 2002 Arab Human Development Report, found that the total number of books translated into Arabic each year is no more than 330, or one-fifth of those annually translated in a small country like Greece. Indeed, the total number of books translated into Arabic during the last 1,000 years, since the age of Caliph Al-Ma'moun, (a ninth-century Arab ruler who was a patron of cultural interaction between Arab, Persian, and Greek scholars) to this day is less than those translated in Spain in one year

Middle Eastern history is littered with examples of wanton foot-dragging and cherry-picking when it comes to accepting, adopting or adapting to outside ideas and influences, leading to the situation whereby even the industrial revolution passed them by. The petty squabbling rivalries, and vainglorious cerebral swagger of Arab Muslim culture, seems to preclude the possibility of the much-needed quantum leap from feudal backwardness to modernity that Japanese society achieved during the period of the nineteenth century Meiji renewal. The Japanese progressed from slavishly copying foreign ways and products, to becoming the highly respected innovators they are today; and they accomplished it all within the time-span of a few generations. The Japanese, being a rational and disciplined people, realized they'd be hopelessly left behind if they failed to modernize or continued to maintain their traditional social structure. Unfortunately for the Muslim world, due to their arrogant sense of superiority, they have arrived at no such conclusion and now, having missed the express train of progress, they stand flat-footed, humiliated, and enraged on the station platform, blaming their situation on everyone but themselves.

All successful cultures, in order to progress, have demonstrated the ability for patience, co-operative discipline, organized planning and deferred gratification; all qualities wholly absent in the fatalistic IBM mindset of the Arab Muslim— Insh'Allah (if Allah wills it), Bukra (tomorrow) and Ma'lesh (it doesn't matter)—any or all of these three repeatedly roll off their tongues to justify their lassitude and inertia in a world of predestination which is devoid of free-will.

Even in a relatively simple pursuit such as agriculture they have stagnated. One would naturally expect that their millennia of date production would have placed them, so to speak, at the top of the tree of innovative excellence in that field; sadly, yet again, not so. It was in fact the reviled Israeli Jews, and not the Arabs, who applied themselves to the task of improving this most traditional of Middle Eastern cash-crops, and as a consequence, Israeli date trees are now yielding 400 pounds per-tree-per-annum, and are not only faster maturing but are low enough at maturity to be harvested from the ground or from a short step-ladder. The positive multiplier effect of these improvements goes without saying. By contrast, the Arabs of the Middle East have been growing date palms since time immemorial and their average tree is about 18-20 feet tall, requires slow, labor-intensive harvesting from a long ladder, and yields about 38 pounds of dates per-tree-per-annum; a mere 10% of the Israeli equivalent in both yield and harvesting efficiency……So there's that old eight ball again!

Although endless and specious claims are made that Muslim thinkers were once a veritable powerhouse of original thought during Islam's 'golden age', it is nonetheless irrefutable, in the light of deeper investigation, that whilst their works certainly proved advantageous to Western civilization, they were nothing more than a beneficial conduit for information gleaned from other, more advanced cultures, primarily those of the Indians and Persians.

As one wag noted "Muslims claim to have contributed the numeral "Zero" to the sum total of human knowledge, and alas, have continued to contribute zero ever since" †

† The universal symbols we now know as Arabic numerals, including the Zero, were referred to by Arabic sources, from the earliest times, as arqam al hind -- "figures from India". The Muslims of that day, though generally contemptuous of non-Islamic culture, had no problem conceding the invention of this number system to India.

Warner MacKenzie is a resident of Sydney, with a long-standing interest in Islam and its impact on Western society.

Posted by Darrin Hodges at 9:43 PM

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