Thankfully, not offensive ones, this time. On Monday, Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi received an honorary doctorate from the National University of Science and Technology in Pakistan, and delivered a speech at the ceremony recounting the accomplishments of Arab and Muslim scientists and scholars. Unfortunately, he got a lot of his points wrong, and the prominent Egyptian writer Youssef Ziedan decided to fact-check him, posting a piece on his Facebook that laid out a variety of Morsi’s inaccuracies, calling them ”grave.” Egypt’s state newspaper Al-Ahram explains the issues Ziedan took with them:
While Morsi cited Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni (973–1048) as the discoverer of pulmonary circulation, for example, Zeidan correctly attributed the discovery to Ibn Al-Nafis, an Arab physician who lived in the 13th century.
“Al-Biruni didn’t discover pulmonary circulation, nor had he ever heard of it,” Zeidan commented, adding that Al-Biruni had made no contribution to the field of philosophy, as Morsi had also claimed in his speech.
Zeidan also corrected Morsi’s pronunciation of Al-Biruni’s name.
The Egyptian president had also told his audience that Iraqi-born polymath Ibn Al-Haytham had introduced the world to, among other things, modern anatomy.
Yet Ibn Al-Haytham did not practice the science of medicine or anatomy, asserted Zeidan, who went on to call Morsi out on another mistake: “Mr. President, Gabber Ibn Hayyan [an 8th-century scholar] did not found the science of chemistry as you maintained; chemistry was known centuries before him by the Greeks, Alexandrians and Muslim Arabs.”
“Ibn Khaldun, Mr. President, did not ‘define sociology’ as you said in your speech . . . which was founded by Auguste Comte and Émile Durkheim and others,” Zeidan continued, adding that Ibn Khaldun was only regarded as having provided an early introduction to the field of sociology.
The figures Morsi mentioned actually did all make important contributions to the development of various sciences . . . just not many of the ones he claimed. In fact, a casual observer of the history of science might notice that some of these assertions are self-evidently unlikely — Arab and Muslim scientists were generally not inventors of whole fields (such as anatomy or chemistry, as Morsi claimed) but took the accomplishments of Greek and Roman scientists in various areas and then made huge leaps forward on their own. Al Haytham, for instance, did write the seminal work on optics between Classical Europe and the Scientific Revolution, but he definitely didn’t invent the science of optics.
Further, Morsi seems to have associated a bunch of important Muslim scientists with fields they had nothing to do with; yet many of the key Eastern scientists were indeed polymaths — one Persian named Avicenna, for instance, wrote on topics ranging from philosophy and theology to geology and physics — but the Muslim Brotherhood leader somehow managed to come up with topics he didn’t engage in.
The work of Al Haytham is nicely emblematic of the substantial contributions the Arab and Islamic world made to science and how they happened — essentially, Greek and Roman authors (sometimes originally Egyptian and Mesopotamian ones) invented the various fields of inquiry, such as optics or astronomy, but then European culture took a little katabasis after the fall of the Roman empire, and the center of science moved east, to places such as Cairo, Baghdad, and Samarkand. Scholars there, sponsored by wealthy Muslim leaders, translated Greco-Roman works of science and philosophy, which were going unread or being buried in Europe, into Arabic and Persian, wrote commentaries on them, and turned out their own work. Through about 1500 or so (the eras of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, in part), many of the important scientific developments made in the world occurred in the East, helping to provide a foundation for the resurgence of classical learning in Europe. The first modern European translators and users of these works were in Muslim areas actually reconquered by Christian rulers, in Sicily and Spain; a few eleventh-century popes made great contributions to the revival, too.
The important work they did in translation throws into sharp relief the pathetic state of the Arab world since that golden age — the U.N.’s Arab Human Development Report in 2003 famously found the following:
In terms of quantity, and notwithstanding the increase in the number of translated books from 175 per year during 1970-1975 to 330, the number of books translated in the Arab world is one fifth of the number translated in Greece. The aggregate total of translated books from the AlMa’moon era to the present day amounts to10,000 books – equivalent to what Spain translates in a single year.
Mamun, mentioned in the report, was a great patron of scholarship, an important thinker himself, and caliph of Baghdad — in the ninth century. Morsi, like many modern Egyptian leaders, actually is a man of science, too (an engineer), but his comments at the Pakistani university tie him into another more prominent strain of the modern Arab world, that of the dishonest dictator.