Exhibition Highlights Muslim Inventions

Article excerpt

Following its immensely popular appearances in Los Angeles (see August 2011 Washington Report, p. 30), New York, Istanbul and London, National Geographic's award-wining interactive exhibition "1001 Muslim Inventions" opened its doors to audiences at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, DC late this summer.

The exhibition begins with a 10-minute video starring English actor Sir Ben Kingsley as a librarian admonishing young British children on the provincialism of the phrase, 'Dark Ages.' "It is a matter of perspective," he advises, noting that Muslim civilization was in its Golden Age at the time.

Stepping through the doors, the eye first catches a 20-foot replica of Muslim polymath Badi'al-Zaman al-Jazari's clock, emblematic of the breadth of cultures on which the exhibit draws. The elephant represents India, the carpet draped over its back Persia, the figures Arabia, the phoenix Egypt, and the dragons China-all synthesized by a Kurdish engineer innovating Greek technology.

The amalgam is a result of Arab expansion in the centuries following the Prophet Muhammad's death. The rapid spread of Islam in its first centuries provided fertile fodder for invention and innovation. Astronomy, mathematics, physics, literature and medical sciences flourished as Arabs combined their rich history with those of their new lands. From this trove of accumulated knowledge arose a great collection of literary, philosophical and scientific works that fundamentally altered the course of history.

The exhibit's seven stations-home, school, market, hospital, town, world and universe-highlight the depth of these contributions to our contemporary experience.

The "Home" station introduces scientist Ibn al-Haytham, whose innovative use of the pinhole principle enabled modern camera technology. More plebeian inventions-soap, shampoo and toothbrushes-also find their antecedent in Muslim innovation. …