The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The stereotypical image of Arabs today is one of a lazy, laid-back race that lives in a dream world of its medieval glory, and has come into enormous wealth through oil reserves buried under the sandy wastes of its homeland, discovered by Western explorers.

In its turn, this image of indolence has lent credence to the Western propaganda that the Islam initially espoused by the Arabs spread by the power of the sword across the Middle-East, North Africa and unto the heart of Europe on the one side, and on the other to Iran, Afghanistan, India, Malaysia and Indonesia. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Arabian civilization spread so widely in so short a time because the Arabs of those times were, in fact, a superior race and pioneers in the fields of astronomy, mathematics, engineering, medicine, architecture, literature and philosophy. Europeans imbibed much learning from the Arabs during their long confrontations with them. And then they went ahead. The Arabs rested on their laurels, and were left behind.

This revelation came to me through an article sent to me by a “friend”, Ashutosh Tuli, whom I have never met. It is based on the review of a book, The House of Wisdom: How The Arabs Transformed Western Civilization by Jonathan Lyons.

The early Arabs took a lot from ancient Greek texts. As early as in 762 AD, they set up a library in Baghdad with a team of translators and called it Bait-al-Hikmat — the House of Wisdom. Arabic replaced Greek as the universal language of “Scientific Inquiry,” concludes Lyons.

There is much we Indians can learn from the Arab experience. We also had an ancient civilization with its own literature, philosophy, art, architecture, medicine, mathematics and astronomy. But as in the case of the Arabs, our learning became static too. So we lost out to the West. The moral is, “move with the times or you will lag behind in every field of activity.”

Making fun of death

Death is no laughing matter: so how can anyone make fun of it? However, Simon Critchley, currently the head of the department of philosophy in a college in New York, has done precisely that. He has gone through lives of 190 philosophers who had expressed themselves on this subject. His compilation, Book of Dead Philosophers, has been recently published in America.

It appears there is very little that is laughable or funny about philosophers breathing their last. There was Socrates who was sentenced to death but was then allowed to take his own life. Surrounded by his admirers, he delivered his final discourse, drank a goblet of hemlock and died. It could not possibly have been funny. Then there was Heraclitius, who had himself smeared with cow dung as a preventive against disease. It suffocated him to death.

The one which does bring a smile on one’s lips is the way in which Avicenna, the medieval Islamic philosopher, died. He believed that having a lot of sex kept a man’s mind off dying. So he had lots of it. He was of the opinion that one should have clean bowels before having sex. So he had lots of enemas: once he had eight enema in a day. It is not recorded how many times he had sex that day.

Sigmund Freud smoked 20 cigars every day. When asked to explain, he replied; “A cigar is sometime just a cigar.” He died of mouth cancer.

Indian philosophers and poets took a gloomy view of death. Mirza Ghalib was obsessed with it and could not get it out of his mind. He wrote: “There is a day fixed for death — Maut kaa ek din muayyan hai. Then why does it give me sleepless nights? — phir neend raat bhar kyon nahin aati? and went on to add: aagey aatee thhee haal-e-dil pey hansee/ ab kissee baat pey nahin aatee.

Allama Iqbal was more philosophical about the phenomenon and believed that a man had to have faith to be able to take death in his stride. Two lines written in Persian sum up his view:

"Nishaane-mard-e-momin ba too goyam

Choon marg aayad, tabasum bar lab-e-ost

You ask me about thesign of a man of faith?

When death comes to him

He has a smile on his lips."

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