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Editorial: Gandhi wasn't joking

'Western civilisation' is a mixed-race child

It is a famous, but apocryphal exchange: ‘Mr Gandhi, what do you think of western civilisation?’ ‘I think it would be a very good idea.’ Europeans like to see their culture as springing directly from the fountains of Greek creativity, being refined within the formality of the Roman empire, then surviving ‘the dark ages’ to flower in the Renaissance and all that has followed.

The Irish journalist and UN civil servant Erskine Barton Childers wrote a passionate corrective in 1966: ‘I often wish to make a TV film in Britain standing in Trafalgar Square [in central London], about the Arabs. It would shock a British – indeed, I think any Western – audience to its foundations. I would point out that the name of the square was Arab; that the cheques passing through the banks around the square were named from an Arabic word and from Arabic commercial innovation, and the numbers on them were Arabic; that the drains running under the square had been developed in Baghdad [in Iraq] and Cordova [in Muslim-ruled Spain] at a time when London and every city in Europe were squelching nightmares of mud and refuse; that the key stars in the heavens above Trafalgar Square are still called by the names given to them by Arab astronomers who discovered them at Arab observatories; that the techniques of navigation used by Nelson to reach the place called Trafalgar were first refined and codified by Arab navigators; that Nelson’s very title, admiral, is an Arabic word; that the water flowing out of the fountains beneath his statue is pure because of a science of chemistry and chemical analysis first properly organised by Arabs; that every time some learned lecturer in nearby museums or university halls refers to “our Greek heritage”, he [or she] means “our Greek heritage as preserved, codified, interpreted and spontaneously enriched and then handed on to us by the Arabs”; that the very disciplines of arithmetic, algebra and trigonometry with which it was possible for Englishmen [and others] to construct a square called Trafalgar were acquired by their ancestors from the Arabs; and that the health of the citizens of London who today walk through this square that is a central symbol of western civilization owes its origins to Arab medical scientists like al-Razi who died in 923, and Ibn Sina, the author of the veritable medical bible of the west for centuries.’

‘Moorish Spain’ was, for much of its 780 years of Islamic, Moroccan rule, the cultural centre of Europe. It was a zone of tolerance in which Jews, who had been almost completely eliminated from the peninsula by Christian persecution, thrived and played a critical role in seeding European civilisation by translating Arabic, Greek and Hebrew texts into romance languages.

In the 12th century, Europe was a colonial and peripheral area. The Christian crusades and European imperialism in general (including the attempt to find an alternative route to the riches of India) were originally acts of ‘colonial rebellion’ against Islamic superpowers. Further back, Martin Bernal reminds us that the ancient Greeks themselves believed their culture had been profoundly influenced by Egyptian civilisation – and there is some evidence to support this.

What we call ‘western civilisation’ is a mixed-race child.

From another point of view, as Gandhi wrote in Hind Swaraj, ‘Civilization is not an incurable disease’.

Topics: History | Global South