Recalling our debt to Islam

Recalling our debt to Islam

BY VERN BARNET: Special to The Star: This may be a good time, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, to ask why many of us, including many Muslims here, don’t think much about the enormous contributions Islamic culture has made to our own.

Try figuring your tax using the Roman instead of Arabic numerals. Do you drink coffee, the brew developed by Muslims? Could Christian Thomas Aquinas have written without having encountered the thoughts of Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd (also known as Averroes)? The story of our indebtedness to Islam is much more pervasive than these examples, and usually ignored.

Here’s a local example of what I mean. One of the icons for Kansas City, Giralda Tower on the Country Club Plaza, across from the J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain, appears twice on the city’s Wikipedia page and on our brochures, calendars, maps and magazine covers (the word “magazine” comes from the Arabic). It is a scaled replica of what was once a minaret in Seville, Spain, from which the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, was chanted. In hometown pride, we point to a monument echoing Islam.

Why are we uninformed? I put this question to Maria Rosa Menocal, whose 2002 book “The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain,” is widely praised. She is married to Kansas City Public Library executive director R. Crosby Kemper III.

In an interview at the library, she said that an answer begins by recognizing “a rupture in the Renaissance” that “traces itself directly back to Latin and Greek” classical culture, ignoring, while utilizing, the advances of Muslims and Jews. In many ways, she said, the Renaissance, by erasing its immediate past, is a “reaction to the Middle Ages, which it depicted as dark, unknowing and backward.” As part of this, the Muslim and Jewish brilliance during the Middle Ages gets wiped out.

And, Menocal said, we grow up thinking that the Middle Ages are “staid and dark and dour.” In fact the Middle Ages, were vibrant and “revolutionary”: the age of the troubadours, the rediscovery of Aristotle, the beginnings of science and the development of vernacular languages, which at first many intellectuals tried to reject by writing in Latin, imitating the classics.

“Even the (Christian) conquest of Jerusalem (in 1099) ends up with bringing great food and clothes home,” importing Muslim goods and manners to the West, she said.

Menocal’s book helps us recover those medieval splendors and recognize the origins of much of our own Western culture. The book may also help us bring the mutual respect that then existed among Muslims, Jews and Christians into our own lives.

Vern Barnet does interfaith work in Kansas City. Reach him at

Posted on Tue, Aug. 07, 2012 04:41 PM

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