September 26, 2012

The National Geographic Society of Washington D.C. recently hosted Professor Salim T.S. al-Hassani, organizer of the exhibition 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilisation. This travelling exhibit is on display at the National Geographic Society now through February 3. It features inventions, discoveries and contributions from early Muslim civilization that are the foundations for daily life in modern society.

Last week, a group of VTS students and faculty visited this exhibit, and we were amazed at the number of significant advances made by Muslims during a thousand year period from the seventh century onward that is not covered in history classes. From the world’s oldest university (founded by a Muslim woman) to the fountain pen, clocks and cameras, gardens and perfume, even many medical treatments – modern society is founded on many discoveries and inventions made by Muslims. Topics such as astronomy, medicine, cartography, architecture and even city planning have links with that early world, when people of various faiths cooperated in their love of learning. This missing history had added to misunderstanding between cultures, and makes it easier to focus on differences than similarities.

After visiting the exhibit, Professor al-Hassani spoke about the history and mission of the project. He realized that there was a thousand year gap in history that was incorrectly labeled the “Dark Ages.” What he discovered in his research was anything but dark, but rather was a period of vibrant Muslim heritage that is lost in modern society.

The power of telling the forgotten history of Muslim civilization is especially evident in light of recent events. An overriding anxiety and fear, which stems from cultural misunderstandings, a tense history and sensationalist media, has gripped our collective spirit. Professor al-Hassani noted that this difficult time is proof of the necessity of the 1001 Inventions project. When we learn about the contributions that women and men of different faiths and cultures contributed to the world, we realize that we aren’t that different after all—our histories are inextricably linked.

This exhibit reminded me that as people of faith, we must commit to befriending our Muslim neighbors, and friendship begins with understanding. We must do the hard work of reconciliation that Jesus called all his disciples to. I encourage everyone in the VTS community to take advantage of this exhibit, and pray that it sparks creative conversations about engaging in interreligious relationships. Now, more than ever, we must build and not break down; respect and not judge; share hope instead of fear. Let’s tell the hidden history.

Mary Lynn Coulson
M.Div. 2015, Diocese of Missouri