Exploring ties between Western and Islamic cultures

Author and illustrator Bryn Barnard (center) at a lecture he gave last Thursday on the ties between Western and Islamic cultures. Downtown Express photo by Aline Reynolds

BY ALINE REYNOLDS  |  Muslim and Western cultures are more similar than most people realize, according to author and illustrator Bryn Barnard, who recently gave a lecture at 51 Park Place, the future home of the Park51 Community Center. In fact, many aspects of contemporary Western civilization stem from medieval Islamic culture, he said.

Barnard delivered a visual presentation of Islam’s cultural innovations dating back to A.D. 600, many of which, he asserted, are the building blocks of 21st century Western society.

“The books we read, the music we play, the words we speak, the numbers we count, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the science we depend on — all were shaped, at least in part, by Islam,” according to Barnard. The lecture was part of Barnard’s international tour to promote his book, “The Genius of Islam: How Muslims Made the Modern World.”

Arabic numerals, for example, originated in India in the fifth century A.D. and quickly spread across Muslim nations, Barnard said. Europe later adopted this decimal system, which enabled the creation of modern-day accounting and computations. Similarly, the Islamic world invented the initial versions of many Western musical instruments, including the keyboard, the drum, the violin and the horn.

The crank-and-connecting rod used in modern-day wheels originated in the Islamic world, as did techniques for growing tropical and other foods, irrigation systems and even hospitals. Members of the Islamic faith also developed observatories that enabled them to calculate the movements of stars, enhance the science of optics and create distinctive architecture. Intricately patterned embroidered cloth and pottery designs also originated in medieval Islam, as well as navigational instruments, expanded forms of pharmacology and more efficient communication methods.

The use of paper is also rooted in Muslim culture: The Chinese invented paper sometime before the second century B.C.; Muslims learned to make it when Islam spread to Central Asia in the eighth century A.D. Under its influence, over the next two centuries, books and libraries became widespread in Central Asia.

It is also hypothesized that Arabic and pseudo-Arabic (decorative calligraphy that looked like Arabic writing but had no meaning) influenced the evolution of the Latin alphabet. Ibn Sina, an 11th-century Persian known to Latin Europeans as Avicenna, and Ibn Rushd, a 12th-century Arab whose European name was Averroes, preserved and interpreted Aristotle’s writings and helped Europeans understand the work of the ancient Greek philosopher and other writers of the classical world.

Many of these inventions were forgotten, however, starting in the 16th century, when, according to Barnard, Europe set out to purposely negate its Islamic heritage and Muslim contributions became overshadowed by Western culture.

The Islamic faith was founded by Muhammad ibn Abdallah, an Arabian merchant from Mecca, which became Islam’s holy city. By 630 A.D., Muhammad and his followers had united all of the Arabian Peninsula under Islam. The empire expanded from Spain to China in the centuries that followed before it broke up into subcultures. It helped inspire the science and optics of the European Renaissance, with continuing effects on our culture today.

“You can agree or disagree with Islam as a religion, but that doesn’t change the fact that Islam as a civilization has had an enormous positive impact on the West,” said Barnard. “Without Islamic civilization… a lot of knowledge of the classical world would have been lost forever.”

Barnard hopes Park51 can use his book as a tool to educate local youths and bridge cultural and religious gaps among community members. “The more open and transparent people are with each other about history, the better we can understand our faiths and where we are,” said Barnard.

Park51 will host an Islamic event at the end of the month, details of which will be posted on its website, park51.org, in the coming days.

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14 Responses to Exploring ties between Western and Islamic cultures

  1. Ah, ties between Western and Islamic cultures, lets see.u00a0 Muslims have been killing Jews and Christians since at least the 9th century.u00a0 They are still killing Christians and Jews whenever they feel like it.u00a0 nnDoes this mean we have something in common?

  2. nnu00a0u00a0u201cThe books we read, the music we play,nthe words we speak, the numbers we count, the clothes we wear, the food we eat,nthe science we depend on u2014 all were shaped, at least in part, by Islam,u201d Soundsnlovely but what aboutu2026 Jihad, or Muslim "HolynWars", what some Westerners wonu2019t attempt to understand, is that Islam andnJihad are inseparableu2026 I am tired of the double talk from Park 51u2026 SharifnEl-Gamal claimed he would never take public funding for his Park 51 project andnyet without non-profit status he is about to receive $5 million dollars fromnthe LMDC.nnnnnu00a0nnnnnnnnnnn

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  6. Nice, let the haters hate. While the sane people build up a new era of understanding and civilization. Most people forget that millions of people died in WWI and WWII and millions more in the Cold War. All of which were done by Christian and Atheist countries.

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  8. u00a0I appreciate the very even-handed article above which summarizes the talk by Bryn Bernard at Park 51. It is important to examine the whole of various faiths and cultures. Islam hasu00a0contributed greatly to the world in the realms of culture, art, and science. Educationu00a0is key to understanding that the negative things we seeu00a0 in the mediau00a0equating Islamu00a0with violence are as foreign to most Muslims as Hitler's hateful acts and writingsu00a0are to most Christians. u00a0I appreciate the positive and very beautiful way this author has summarized centuries of positive contribution by Islam and Muslims to the very colorful and diverse world we share. It's nice that someone is balancing out the hate and fear-mongering that is so prevalent in today's society.

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  11. islam alays stmbolised an era of peace let jews remember dah days of prince saladin who liberated the majid al aqsa at jerusalem against crusaders ……………. the sympathy shown by prince saladin to the jew people is enough to symbolise the peaceful nature of islam nd eveen dah jews cnt cntradict it

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