‘Let me highlight a handful of Islam’s contributions to Western culture. The guitar. Cough syrup. The university. Algebra. Mocha coffee...’
- Irshad Manji, from her The Trouble With Islam Today
This is one of the most common and annoying mistakes you can find in defence of Islam.
How can Islam itself have contributed the guitar, cough syrup, algebra, etc. to ‘Western culture’? How can a religion, or the Koran, the hadiths, etc. have contributed these things? How can even the affects of Islam, the Koran, etc. have done so? It is absolutely ridiculous to claim that Islam, a religion primarily based on the Koran, could have had an hand in the invention of the guitar, algebra, cough syrup syrup, etc. Which passages in the Koran, or the hadiths, etc. helped contribute to the creation of algebra? Which passages helped inspire the invention of cough syrup? Again, this is plain silly!
What Manji must really mean is that people who happened to have been Muslim made these contributions to Western culture. Islam itself had absolutely nothing to do with it. I suppose we could say that Islam obliquely inspired these Muslims to invent these things. But the relation of cause and effects must have been very oblique indeed.
We can even say that these scientists, poets, inventors, mathematicians, etc., invented or created these things in spite of Islam, not because of it. Islam, on the whole, got in the way of their inventions or creations - it didn’t help or inspire them.
We can also say that these inventions and creations happened in spite of Islam, not because of it, because algebra, the guitar, cough syrup, etc. wouldn’t have been created or invented if it weren’t for the vitally important precedents which came from infidel or non-Muslim cultures. Even if Muslims were the inventors or creators of all these things, they wouldn’t have been the inventors or creators of any of them if it weren’t for the groundwork done by the infidels of ancient Greece, Rome, India, etc.
Above and beyond all that, some of the examples of ‘Islam’s contributions to Western culture’ are a bit suspect anyway. Apart from the fact that every one of these examples would have required infidel or non-Muslim antecedents to set the groundwork, it is unquestionably the case that algebra is not a Muslim invention anyway. Algebra goes back to the ancient Greeks. And it is also said that Diophantus (3rd century AD) was ‘the father of algebra’. He lived around 300 years before Islam even existed.
So perhaps all Manji meant is that Muslims, not Islam itself, added to the tradition and extent of algebra. Muslims, let alone Islam, certainly didn’t invent or discover it!
As for both the guitar and the university, it depends on how these words or concepts are defined. Guitar-like instruments date back to various ancient cultures - all of them pre-dating Islam by hundreds if not thousands of years (especially in ancient India and East Asia). Perhaps, in the end, Manji is only taking about the word ‘guitar’ itself. Yes, that word comes from an Andalusian Arabic source, but that doesn’t mean that Muslims, let alone Islam, invented the guitar.
Exactly the same kinds of thing can be said about Manji’s other examples of ‘contributions to Western culture’. Again, the idea that Islam itself, rather than people who happened to be Muslims (whom themselves were hugely indebted to non-Muslim culture and knowledge), invented or created any of these things is plainly ridiculous. Indeed to say that Islam contributed, or invented, or created, algebra or anything else is almost a grammatical or logical mistake.
Because of all that, the same criticism can be levelled at what Manji writes in the very next paragraph. She writes:
‘Innovation and the spirit of ijtihad went hand in glove. In the southern Spanish city of Cordoba, for example, a sexually spunky woman named Wallada organised literary salons where people analysed dreams, poetry and the Quran.’ (Manji, 65)
We can even rewrite that passage thus:
A woman, who just happened to be a Muslim, organised literary salons where people analysed dreams, poetry and the Quran.
A more germane point would be:
Did the Koran, etc., inspire or influence this ‘sexually spunky woman’ to ‘analyse’ itself? I very much doubt it!
All these things were done in spite of Islam, not because of Islam. Would we say that a serial killer, who believed in sleeping with everyone he met and in eating worms, was inspired or influenced by Islam simply because he did all these things as a Muslim? More to the point: was Islam to blame or responsible for his serial killing and his eating worms? Of course not. So why can’t we say the same about Muslims who invented the guitar, or cough syrup or who contributed to algebra? And in Manji’s other example, was Islam itself, or the Koran itself, responsable for this Cordoban woman’s spunkiness or her penchant for salon discussions about poetry, dreams, etc?