Free Thinker’s Forum: The lost city of Baghdad |

Free Thinker’s Forum: The lost city of Baghdad

Damian Sowers

Baghdad used to be the intellectual center of the world. As hard as it is to believe, there was a time when scholars and philosophers from all over the globe traveled to Baghdad to compare ideas.

If you think of Baghdad these days, you probably associate it with words like “disaster,” “patriot missiles,” “poverty,” “religious fanaticism,” “ridiculous rap lyrics,” etc. But Baghdad and the Mesopotamia valley weren’t always pits of oppression. There is a reason why two-thirds of the stars in the night sky have Arabic names: The Arabs of the 11th century discovered them.

So what went wrong? How did a scholarly Islamic culture turn its back to its own beautiful philosophy of discovery? How could the amazing people who invented algebra, Arabic numerals, and the concept of zero undergo such a ghastly ideological shift? Most historians believe that the decline of secular Islam can be largely attributed to the work of a single religious zealot, a so-called intellectual by the name of Imam Hamid al-Ghazali.

The general message of al-Ghazali’s crusade was, “mathematics is the work of the devil.” And looking back at this brief moment in the eventful history of the Middle East, it’s astounding to think that one man’s voice at the beginning of the 12th century catalyzed nine hundred years of turmoil. The worst part is, the region still hasn’t recovered from that voice.

One can’t help but wonder, what have we missed out on? If the people of the Middle East had directed all of their hard work toward the investigation of the natural world, rather than the dogged pursuit of piety, imagine the discoveries that might have been made. Baghdad reminds me of a girl who showed amazing potential as a child, the kid genius whom every boy fell in love with. But as this kid grew up, she ended up shocking us all by plunging into a life of drugs and violence, managing to disappoint even her most starry-eyed lovers.

I think it is time for a new voice to be heard in the Middle East. If Islam is to recapture the beauty of its past, a Muslim will have to stand up and speak out against the fear-mongering ghost of al-Ghazali.

It is not without irony that 11th century Muslims perfected the science of celestial navigation with astrolabes — for modern day Islam has lost its way.

— Damian Sowers graduated in bio-chemistry from the University of Colorado at Boulder and worked at the Berkeley Space Science Laboratory on the NASA Genesis Mission. He grew up in South Lake Tahoe. He can be e-mailed at

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