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TMO Interview with Author Michael Hamilton Morgan

August 23, 2007 by  


By Ilyas Choudry

Please briefly inform about yourself: When and where were you born: Your family background: Where you went to school and from where did you graduate from?

I was born in 1951 in Charlotte, North Carolina. I was an Echols Scholar at the University of Virginia and graduated in 1973 with a BA in English.

What are you doing now-a-days?

I’m a fiction and nonfiction writer, working on several projects in both areas. I head up a nonprofit group called New Foundations for Peace (www.nfpeace.org) and I occasionally write speeches for corporate executives.

Please inform our readers about your first two books: What were the themes and purposes of these books?

The Twilight War (1991) was an international thriller about the end of the Cold War. Graveyards of the Pacific (2001) was about the major naval battles of World War II in the Pacific. Collision with History: the Search for John F. Kennedy’s PT 109 was about John Kennedy’s experience in the Pacific in 1941-44, and about the expedition to find his sunken PT 109 boat in the Solomon Islands.

How did the idea for “Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers, and Artists” come about?

A few days after the 9/11 attack, I was asked to write a speech for a leading American business executive. While the original subject was to have focused mostly on her business and industry, the continuing national grief meant it would have been insulting to ignore the major issue of the day. And so this speaker agreed to try and bridge the gulf between Muslims and non-Muslims by remembering the greatness the Muslim world had spawned, and how much it meant to everyone.

Rather than focus on the awful reality of the present, I decided to have the speaker address the fascinating Muslim history that I’d uncovered in my reading and research…. A Muslim history that was about invention, creativity, big ideas, tolerance, and coexistence. A Muslim history that had been more intellectually accomplished than Christian Europe of the day, and a Muslim past where Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists had sometimes flourished and worked together. A Muslim culture that had seeded the European Renaissance, and helped enable many aspects of the modern West and global civilization.

It is a history that by the beginning of the 21st century had been forgotten, ignored, misunderstood, suppressed or even rewritten.

I thought that the speech might get some attention and might draw some criticism here at home. What I hadn’t expected was that Muslims overseas would also write, wanting to know, who were these historical figures referred to, and how could they find out more?

It was then I knew that there was a huge gulf of misunderstanding on both sides that needed to be filled. And so I came to think, if a fuller and deeper appreciation of Muslim history could be recovered, then maybe the very premises of the emerging “clash of civilizations” could be re-framed.

The result is this book. I know there may be those on the non-Muslim side of the divide, who will say that I’m distorting history, by choosing to emphasize the bright side of a very complex civilization. I will respond that I am simply balancing the incomplete and negative slant of most of what we non-Muslims have been given.

To apply the argument of these critics fully and fairly, we would need to include in the history of Western “Christian” civilization not only the thoughts of Voltaire and St. Thomas Aquinas, but also the thoughts and deeds of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.

There may also be those who will say that I have sought to rehabilitate and glorify heretics and impure Muslims, who deserve to be suppressed and forgotten.

By no coincidence, all of the great thinkers, inventors and artists of Muslim civilization were creative minds. Much like today’s scientific researchers, they were trained in their various disciplines to constantly question assumptions, in a search for higher truth. Their number included some who followed other religions. While they were all versed in the tenets and philosophy of their faiths, few were rigid, doctrinaire thinkers. And they operated in a very different political context than we see today. The Muslim quest for knowledge often drove even the most devout rulers and religious scholars to support freethinking and empirical scientific inquiry.

But fascination with the intellect came under increasing attack, beginning in the 9th century. One debate among many was between Muslim “rationalists” who believed in finding divine truth through reason, and “literalists” who stuck to the narrowly-interpreted literal statements and acts of the Prophet. It was not unlike the current and longstanding American debate between supporters of Darwinism and advocates of creationism or intelligent design.

By writing Lost History, I hope to show not only the contributions of an old and rich civilization. I hope to show, as Caliph AL Mamun concluded, that reason and faith can coexist: that by fully opening the mind and unleashing human creativity, many wonders, including peace, are possible.

How did you perform your research for this book: What were your sources?

I preferred to go back to the original texts — letters, diaries, speeches, sermons and contemporary historical accounts of the major leaders, thinkers and events of historical times — rather than depend on modern day scholarly interpretations. I was surprised at how much of this material exists after 1000 years or more. And more of it is coming to light each day, as once-lost manuscripts turn up hidden away in old collections and archives.

For modern interpretations, I tried to read as broad a selection, from all nationalities and schools of thought. I read scholars from Edward Said to Philip Hitti to Bernard Lewis to Seyyed Hossein Nasr.

Can you point to three inventions we use now-a-days for granted, which have Muslim Roots in their basis?

First, I argue that just about all of the digital electronic world — computers, hardware, wireless devices, software, Google searches and hedge fund computation models — derive from higher mathematics including the algorithm developed by Mohammed al Khwarizmi and others 1200 years ago in Baghdad, Cordoba, Damascus, Cairo, India and elsewhere.

Second, I would say inhalation anesthesia and surgical antiseptics like alcohol come from both Ibn Sina in Persia and AL Zahrawi in AL Andalus.

Third, I would argue that the modern love song, descended from the medieval European troubadours and love ballads, is really a descendant of 8th century Arabic love poetry, which filtered up in various forms through Spain, Portugal, France, Sicily and Italy.

Do you think in the wake of incidents of 9/11, people have taken your research seriously?

That depends on which people you are talking about. Educated people in the West seem more open to hearing a broader and deeper explanation of Muslim culture than what is being conveyed in the mass media. Some people, who are interested in encouraging conflict, reject what I’m saying because it differs from their preconceptions.

How did Muslim, Christian and Jewish Communities lived in the past?

Answer: Generally speaking until 1948, in the Muslim world, Christian and Jewish minorities were given a fairly secure status of autonomy, as long as they did not challenge Islam or openly seek converts. This is based in certain statements by the Prophet giving special protected status to children of the book, i.e. Jews and Christians as long as they respected the dominance of Islam. At times, there was a real spirit of tolerance and collaboration, such as in al Andalus from 756 to 1492, Ottoman Turkey and secular Turkey until today, Egypt, Morocco, Syria and other places with a long history of multi-culturalism. This is not to say there weren’t breakdowns, as in the massacre of Jews in Toledo in the 11th century. But while imperfect, the climate of Muslim tolerance for minority Christians and Jews was far superior to what “Christendom” did for Jews and other minorities, including numerous persecutions of Jews in medieval Europe, and Russian program of Jews, culminating in the Holocaust in World War II. Sadly for the last 50 years this long tradition of interfaith coexistence in the Muslim world has been breaking down in places.

Do you think the model community of Muslims, Christians and Jewish people living together be the model for Israeli-Palestinian Issue?

I wouldn’t pretend to tell Israelis and Palestinians how to resolve their problems, but only to remember that for a long time, all groups were able to coexist in the region for long periods of time.

Do you think books like this latest one avoid more blood shed in the world and solve the problems affecting us in the ongoing war on terror?

We’ll see if my book has any positive impact. Since our current problems have been building for a long time, it would be a miracle if new ideas helped bring a rapid end to conflict. But maybe in a generation or two…

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