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Examining Islam’s Golden Age to Bridge the East and West Divide

Professor Akbar Ahmed's new book examines the scholars of Islam's Golden Age.

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The Golden Age of Islam was a time in the religion’s history when economic development, scientific contributions, and cultural works flourished. It took place during the ninth through thirteenth centuries and was marked by groundbreaking contributions from philosophers of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish faiths interacting with each other. Many of the ideas that these scholars conceptualized continue to be discussed and used globally. For instance, Avicenna—a Muslim philosopher and medical doctor—originated the idea of the quarantine.

It is Avicenna’s most famous “flying man” thought experiment after which SIS professor Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at AU, titled his latest book, The Flying Man, Aristotle, and the Philosophers of the Golden Age of Islam: Their Relevance Today. The experiment is to think of a man suspended in midair—his eyes are closed, and even while stretching out his arms and legs, he is not touching anything. He is, in that moment, unaware of his body, but his sense of self is still there. By illustrating this scenario, the philosopher differentiates body from soul.

“Avicenna’s thought experiment was so important that it was equivalent to Plato’s famous allegory of the prisoners in the cave or Nietzsche’s Übermensch, the idea of the super man,” says Ahmed. “I selected this experiment to show that philosophers 1000 years ago were engaged with real issues of society—the question of the soul. The question of what happens after life.”

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ahmed was inspired to examine and write about the scholars of the Golden Age because they themselves had faced and survived times of crises—one being when the Mongols invaded and wreaked destruction on the Muslim world.

After reading The Flying Man, Lord Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge had this to say: “The retrieval of this humane, wise and generous tradition is a real necessity for us all. This book, from perhaps the most distinguished and versatile Muslim scholar in the English-speaking world today, brings out both the intellectual and the human qualities of the great souls presented here.”

Ahmed also aims for the book to push back on preconceived notions of Islam as an anti-intellectual and backward religion. Most world history lessons begin after 1492, when Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain, and, as a result, many in the West are never taught about the Golden Age of Islam, Muslim culture, or the contributions of Muslim scholars. Ahmed emphasizes that many don’t know that the first man to attempt flight was Abbas Ibn Firnas in Cortoba 1000 years ago or that St. Thomas Aquinas, known as one of the Catholic Church’s greatest scholars, was influenced by the work of the great Muslim scholar Ibn Rushd.

“If you don’t know about any of that, you’re stuck with Orientalist tropes and stereotypes,” says Ahmed. “It’s up to us as scholars and professors to challenge that core basis of the continuing prejudice towards one another.”

Ahmed believes that it’s important to prioritize knowledge and learning because the more people learn, the more they understand how they relate to one another as well as how they face the same types of global challenges. As divisiveness continues to impact people around the world, Husein ef. Kavazović, the Grand Mufti of the Islamic community in Bosnia and Herzegovina, believes this book works to lessen those divides.

“In this inspiring book, Professor Akbar Ahmed continues his personal quest to bridge the gap between the Orient and the West, as he did in his earlier books and projects,” says Kavazović. “After reading this excellently written book it is obvious that we humans, regardless of our backgrounds and affiliations, are similar in our quest for Truth, understanding ourselves, and in our ‘love of wisdom’. Professor Ahmed has performed an inspiring and noble task in showing this to us in such a fascinating way in a time when differences are being overemphasized and common human values distorted.”