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Opinion: Learning from Leonardo
Published in The Egyptian Gazette on 24 - 03 - 2012

Some years back the world was enthralled by the film, The Da Vinci Code. Leonardo Da Vinci features prominently in the film and in Dan Brown's novel on which the film was based.
In examining Da Vinci the man, though, we can learn something important for today's world, which flies in the face of much of the portrayal of Islam in the Western media. In fact, a little knowledge about Leonardo can reveal something about Islam that is often ignored in the West.
There is absolutely no doubt that Leonardo Da Vinci was a brilliant man, perhaps one of the most brilliant men ever to have lived. He was born in 1452 in the town of Vinci near Florence as the illegitimate son of a local scribe and a peasant woman, Da Vinci rose to great heights because of his creative talent. As an artist, he was a genius. As a mathematician, scientist, engineer, architect, and inventor, he remains one of the greatest people to have walked this earth.
Da Vinci excelled at everything he turned his mind to. He was good at everything. While his personal life was something of a disaster, he has gone down in history as one of the giants of the Renaissance. He seemed to sum up all that was meant by a Renaissance Man, one who is well-rounded in all subjects.
The Renaissance, of course, was that time in the 16th century when the nations of Europe were emerging from the Middle Ages with new discoveries in mathematics and science, and a whole new understanding of art and architecture.
The word renaissance comes from a French word that means “rebirth”. At that time, it seemed as if countries such as France and Italy had rediscovered the knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome, which had been lost to Europe for centuries.
It seems hard to imagine, but that is exactly what had happened in Europe. All of the knowledge of classical antiquity had been lost, and Europe had gone through what is now known as the Dark Ages.
It was in the Renaissance that all of this lost knowledge was rediscovered. Men like Da Vinci used all of these new insights and discoveries, along with their own creative genius, to advance human achievement to unimagined heights.
But where did all this “lost” knowledge come from? How was the knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome somehow “rediscovered” after so many centuries? It certainly didn't just drop out of the sky!
Muslims we can be proud of the answer: it came from Muslim Spain, also known as Andalusia, where branches of knowledge had flourished and been kept alive for centuries. It was to Muslim Spain that Europe looked to bring itself out of the Dark Ages.
While much of Europe had been living in buildings made of wood and straw, the Islamic civilisation in Spain had been both refined and elegant. From roughly 700 to 1450 CE, the Islamic empire in Spain was the centre of culture and of knowledge. While most of the citizens of Europe could neither read nor write, the Muslims in Cordoba, for example, had more than 70 libraries.
At the same time that London was a tiny mud-hut village, historians record that Cordoba's streets were paved and well-lit and the city had a vast population. Many of them lived in houses with marble balconies and mosaic floors, and the city had mosques, public baths, and public gardens complete with orchards and fountains.
Not only did Muslim Spain exceed the rest of Europe in terms of art and architecture. It was also the intellectual centre of Europe, where knowledge and debate were cherished and encouraged, and where most of the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers had been translated into Arabic.
What is more, Moorish Spain, as it was known, was a place of tolerance where Christians and Jews lived in peace under their Muslim rulers. At a time when Europe was far from tolerant, the Muslims in Spain encouraged dialogue and respect for others.
It is good for us, living in predominantly Muslim lands, never to lose sight of the rich history of Islam, especially nowadays when many in the West present Western culture as the answer to all of life's ills and try to promote Western values throughout the world as if Islam was somehow backward. It is important for us to learn from our history.
When the Muslims in Spain became disunited and began quarrelling and fighting among themselves, the Christian armies began to attack them. Books were burned and libraries were ransacked. Mosques were destroyed and Islam was ruthlessly crushed. The Islamic empire in Spain ceased to exist.
Its vast treasury of knowledge was carried off across the Pyrenees to the rest of Europe, ushering in the Renaissance, which claimed all of this new knowledge for itself.
So what are we to learn from all this? How can we benefit from it? First of all, we can remind our friends that the so-called Renaissance of knowledge in Europe came from Muslim Spain. It was Muslims who had kept the knowledge of antiquity safe throughout Europe's Dark Ages. When so many try to put down the worth of Islam, presenting it as inferior to “modern” ways, we can show them how rich Islam is.
Islam certainly doesn't need anyone's approval. Muslims have so much to teach the world, not only in terms of art and architecture, but also in terms of behaviour and manners. Great Muslim men of knowledge like Avicenna can sit at the tables of scholarship along with anyone the West would like to propose.
But there is more. Da Vinci is now held up for us as the perfect example of a Renaissance Man. The Renaissance encouraged all people to excel in every sphere and to become knowledgeable in all disciplines. Isn't that what Islam is all about? Aren't Muslims called by Almighty Allah to be the best they can be, showing everyone else that all they do is done for the sake of Allah? So we don't need the Renaissance to tell us how we should behave.
As Egypt goes through a period of transition from dictatorship to true democracy, Egyptians are faced with some choices. They need to decide in which direction the country will go and what kind of nation they want to have.
Egypt, though, doesn't need the ideals and the values of the West to be fully developed. On the contrary, Islam teaches people to develop all of their talents, encouraging education, sports, art, and science. All of us are called, for Allah's sake, to develop our full potential.
The Muslims in Spain began to fail when they were not united. Their enemies were then able to pick them off, one by one. What a wonderful example Muslims could give to the world if only they could be united and live as good Muslims. Islam invites us to learn from all things. Everything can speak to us about the greatness of Allah, if only we are prepared to listen.
So even Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, a novel that has caused such uproar throughout the world, can help us to learn about Islamic history. In holding up for us the figure of Da Vinci, the West seeks to teach us a lesson. As Muslims we can say: “We've been there, we've done that.” Islam has so much more to teach the world. Inshallah, our good example can draw others to its sweet and gentle message and help us to build an Egypt that is fully developed in every way and where all of its people, of any faith or of none, can live as equal citizens and as friends.
British Muslim writer, Idris Tawfiq, is a lecturer at Al-Azhar University . The author of eight books about Islam, he divides his time between Egypt and the UK as a speaker, writer and broadcaster. You can visit his website at

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