Jonathan F. Keiler:
Teaching history can be frustrating, but sometimes students actually figure stuff out and learn a thing or two, unlike some of our political leaders. For example, just the other day one of my students asked why there are no great empires anymore, and countries don’t go around conquering like they used to do. That’s a big question, without a certain answer, and some would say states a false premise. But it is also true that since the end of World War II the world has witnessed something unprecedented in the rest of world history, which is a benevolent nation as the world’s dominant power. Never in history was there a nation (particularly in the immediate aftermath of World War II when the U.S. held a nuclear monopoly) which like the United States, held an overwhelming military advantage against all comers, that chose not to aggrandize itself through domination of others and conquest. That restraint, and the immense military and economic power that lay behind it, also prevented other weaker nations from pursuing imperial ambitions.
I explained this to my students, and then proposed that this unique period of world history appears to be ending, thanks in part to the outlook and policies of the Obama administration. I gently discussed this with the class (mostly African-American) and asked if anyone could think of an example that backed my case. “Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine” somebody quickly proposed (teaching has a lot of intangible gratification.)
Russian imperial aggression in the Ukraine may be the best example of the resurgence of empire and conquest that is gripping the world today, in the wake of Obama’s orchestrated American retreat from its post-World War II role. But it is not the only one. China recently surpassed the United States in economic output (which was inevitable) but is also engaged in an unprecedented military buildup, is reasserting its traditional role as the “Middle Kingdom” in East Asia, and continues (as with Russia) to run circles around Obama’s policy initiatives (most recently the ridiculous climate-change negotiations.) And Persia (modern day Iran) seeks not only to establish regional hegemony, but to reassert imperial imperatives through a nuclear arsenal, and the defeat of ancient enemies, Arab, and Jews both.
But fear not. President Obama is a student of history. He said so in his famous Cairo address. There, after making this typically grandiose statement, he proceeded to demonstrate that, unlike my classroom questioner, he was not a very good student. Let’s just look at he learned about Islam, a subject of particular interest to him.
After bragging about his studiousness, Obama first broadly asserted “civilization’s” debt to Islam. As described by Obama, we owe Islam for “paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and the Enlightenment.” The truth is that Islamic scholars helped preserve the works of Aristotle and other Western scholars for their own purposes. Arabic translations of these Western works ultimately reached medieval Europe. Of course, this occurred amidst centuries of bloody warfare between Islamic kingdoms and the West
Obama then credits “Muslim communities” with developing algebra. This is another specious claim, similar to Obama’s first general assertion. While it is true the word “algebra” originates in the Arabic, algebra did not originate in Islam. Its origins date back to Babylon, and run through China, Greece and India. Modern algebra is really an Indian innovation, which reached the Muslim world through conquest and trade, and ultimately made its way further west. Just as we erroneously refer to our number system as “Arabic” (the numbers we use are Hindi and originated in India) crediting algebra to Islam is a triumph of semantics over actual history.
Obama then credits Islam with inventing the magnetic compass and “tools of navigation.” Any of my students knows this is wrong, as these inventions originated in China (along with paper — that also made its way west after an Islamic army captured Chinese paper-makers at the Battle of the Talus River in 751 C.E.) Same with Obama’s next claim, that “pens and printing” originated in the Islamic world. Wrong, these were Chinese inventions too.
Obama concludes this portion of his treatise by saying “Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality.” I’m not sure what “demonstrating” “possibilities” means exactly, although one can cherry-pick the Quran to for peaceful and tolerant statements. But in practice, Islamic polities treated non-Muslims as second-class citizens if they were fellow monotheists, and much worse if they were not. As for racial equality, one only has to know that the trans-African slave trade began with Islamic states 700 years before the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and continued for decades after it was abolished in the West.
Obama goes on, magnifying his errors. Islam is an interesting and important world religion. But it is wrong to attribute false accomplishments to the Islamic world or excuse its excesses. Suffice it to say, that Islamic culture at its height between the 7th and 15th Centuries helped to both preserve and transfer knowledge and technology throughout the broad swath of dar al Islam, much of which ultimately reached the West, despite the efforts of many Islamic polities to conquer and destroy Western civilization.
Years ago I had the pleasure of access to the private rare books in the LB Public Library.
One of them was an out-of-print old history book filled with letters from British experts in architecture.
About 300-400 years ago some British architect wanted to honor Islam by allowing Muslim engineers to design a Mosque he was hired to build.
Not one Muslim in his field could design such a dome!
The math involved was over their heads.
One of them finally admitted the truth: Muslims had enslaved math experts from the Byzantine area and used their expertise in math to design and their slaves to build all their mosque domes!
I just wish I’d have made a copy of his letter.