x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Clever creations of the Muslim world

We talk to Ahmed Salim, the director and producer of the exhibition 1001 Inventions, which is in Washington, DC for six months and made a stop in Abu Dhabi.

Sir Ben Kingsley as Al Jazari in the short film 1001 Inventions and the Library of Secrets.
Sir Ben Kingsley as Al Jazari in the short film 1001 Inventions and the Library of Secrets.

Six years after it debuted in England, the ground-breaking 1001 Inventions exhibition has arrived in the US capital of Washington, DC for a six-month run, after attracting more than three million people at other stops including a 2011 run at the Abu Dhabi Science Festival. An Arabic version is touring the Middle East, with productions in other languages in the works. Visitors to the current stop at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, DC can witness the wonders of a civilisation that spread across southern Europe, the Middle East and parts of Africa, Asia and China.

“During this period, men and women of many faiths – and none – worked together, building on ancient ideas of scholars who came before them, and making breakthroughs that helped pave the way for the European Renaissance afterwards,” said Ahmed Salim, the exhibition’s producer and director.

How long has the exhibition been running? Where did it begin and where will it end?

The first 1001 Inventions exhibition was launched at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, England, in 2006, to great public acclaim. Modified versions were displayed in the British Parliament, European Parliament and at the United Nations. In 2009, the philanthropic arm of the Abdul Latif Jameel Group Saudi Arabia came on board as our strategic global partner and funded the construction of a larger touring exhibition, which then launched at the London Science Museum in January 2010. We received 400,000 visitors, five times the expected number.

National Geographic has just published the third edition of our book, 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization, and we are planning to launch several more books about the history of science, technology and culture in the Muslim world. We also hope to build on the phenomenal success of our educational film, 1001 Inventions and The Library of Secrets, which has been downloaded more than 22 million times and showered with awards at film festivals in Cannes, London, Los Angeles and New York.

How has it changed perceptions on the achievements and contributions during the Golden Age of Muslim Civilisation?

1001 Inventions promotes an accurate and more inclusive public awareness of the enormous contributions to science, technology and culture that came to us from Muslim civilisation. However, what surprises many visitors is the diversity within that civilisation. Many are surprised to see how many of the scientific heroes of that era were not Muslim. The exhibition highlights the significant achievements of Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, et cetera, scientists and scholars who were living within or connected to what is known as Muslim civilisation.

1001 Inventions also highlights the enormous impact made in mathematics, engineering, medicine, law, administration, and so on by the women of Muslim civilisation. Seeing these towering figures from history, who were respected and admired by their communities, certainly challenges uninformed stereotypes.

Tell us more about the achievements by women.

For example, visitors will meet Al Astrulabi, a female maker of astrolabes in the 10th century, whose unique expertise was widely respected and she worked directly for the Emir.  Our audience is also introduced to Fatima Al Fihri, a young heiress who had lived in Fez [Morocco] and whose passion for education led to her founding the world’s first modern university – a multi-faculty, multi-subject institution of higher learning that offered free education to both men and women. Her legacy, the University of Al-Qarawiyyin, is still operating today.

How will a new generation of scholars be inspired?

Our primary objective is to encourage young people to pursue careers in science and technology. We can achieve this by bringing to life inspiring, historic role models through our books, exhibitions, films, and we have even developed classroom materials for school teachers, which can be downloaded for free. We know that it’s not enough to simply tell the story. We need to make it relevant to the -audience.

The exhibition is just only about a kilometre from the White House. How significant is it to hold this exhibition in such a location?

Being in the heart of the diplomatic and political centre of the US means that some of the most powerful and influential people in the world will have the opportunity to learn about the underappreciated, yet important, effect the Muslim world has had on the way we live our lives -today.

1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization includes a foreword by the Prince of Wales; how has this publication helped add value to the exhibition?

The exhibition is accessible to the layman who has no prior knowledge of this astonishing period of history. The official companion, 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization, features 350 fully illustrated pages giving the reader a more in-depth understanding of the subject.

The 1001 Inventions exhibition is introduced with a film and divided into zones. Highlights include:

The Hollywood actor Sir Ben Kingsley assuming the role of the 12th-century engineer Al Jazari in the film.

The home zone looks at the 13th-century “Elephant Clock” by Al Jazari, which pioneered automation, as well as examples of toothbrushes, fountain pens and cameras.

School looks at learning, the development of algebra, trigonometry and geometry – and the secret behind the way we write modern numbers.

Medical demonstrates how medical knowledge and treatment influenced medicine today, including the rise of state-funded hospitals and welfare systems.

Town explores the spread of innovative domes, arches, vaults and towers visible today, as well as hammams and environmentally friendly building designs and traditions.

World shows how geographers, explorers and scholars influenced map-making and features travellers such as Ibn Battuta and the aviator Abbas Ibn Firnas.

Universe looks at astronomers and instrument-makers, the development of observatories and the lunar calendar.