Many historians regard him [Offa] as the most powerful Anglo-Saxon king before Alfred the Great. In the 780s he extended his power over most of Southern England. One of the most remarkable extantfrom King Offa's reign is a gold coin that is kept in the British Museum. On one side, it carries the inscription Offa Rex (Offa the King). But, turn it over and you are in for a surprise, for in badly copied Arabic are the words La Illaha Illa Allah ('There is no god but Allah alone'). This coin is a copy of an Abbasid dinarfrom the reign of Al-Mansur, dating to 773, and was most probably used by Anglo-Saxon traders. It would have been known even in Anglo-Saxon England that Islamic gold dinars were the most important coinage in the world at that time and Offa's coin looked enough like the original that it would have been readily accepted abroad.
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In fact, for a period stretching over seven hundred years, the international language of science was Arabic. For this was the language of the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam, and thus the official language of the vast Islamic Empire that, by the early eighth century CE, stretched from India to Spain.
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It is a fact of life that oversimplified accounts of the development of science are often necessary in its teaching. Most scientific progress is a messy, complex and slow process; only with the hindsight of an overall understanding of a phenomenon can a story be told pedagogically rather than chronologically. This necessitates the distilling of certain events and personalities from the melee: those who are deemed to have made the most important contributions. It is inevitable therefore that the many smaller or less important advances scattered randomly across hundreds of years of scientific history tend to be swept up like autumn leaves into neat piles, on top of which sit larger-than-life personalities credited with taking a discipline forward in a single jump. Sometimes this is perfectly valid, and one cannot deny the genius of an Aristotle, a Newton, a Darwin or an Einstein. But it often leaves behind forgotten geniuses and unsung heroes.
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I am a cuddly atheist... I am against creationism being taught in schools because there is empirical evidence that it is a silly notion... I am passionately concerned about the rise in pseudo-science; in beliefs in alternative medicine; in creationism. The idea that somehow it is based on logic, on rational arguments, but it's not. It doesn't stand up to empirical evidence. In the same way in medicine, alternative medicines like homeopathy or new age therapies - reiki healing - a lot of people buy into it and it grates against my rationalist view of the world. There is no evidence for it. It is deceitful. It is insidious. I feel passionately about living in a society with a rationalist view of the world. I will be vocal on issues where religion impacts on people's lives in a way that I don't agree with - if, for instance, in faith schools some of the teaching of religion suggests the children might have homophobic views or views that are intolerant towards other belief systems... I am totally against, for example, bishops in the House of Lords. Why should someone of a particular religious faith have some preferential treatment over anyone else? This notion that the Church of England is the official religion of the country is utterly outmoded now.
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By the time of the arrival of Islam in the early seventeenth century CE, what we now call the Middle East was divided between the Persian and Byzantine empires. But with the spread of this new religion from Arabia, a powerful empire emerged, and with it a flourishing civilization and a glorious golden age. Given how far back it stretches in time, the history of the region - and even of Iraq itself - is too big a canvas for me to paint. Instead, what I hope to do in this book is take on the nonetheless ambitious task of sharing with you a remarkable story; one of an age in which great geniuses pushed the frontiers of knowledge to such an extent that their work shaped civilizations to this day.
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The difference between my beliefs and having a religious faith is that I am prepared to change my views in light of new evidence, but someone of a religious faith will just stick their fingers in the ears and say: 'I'm not listening, there's nothing you can say that will make me change my mind.
If you trace back all those links in the chain that had to be in place for me to be here, the laws of probability maintain that my very existence is miraculous. But then after however many decades, less than a hundred years, they disburse and I cease to be. So while they're all congregated and coordinated to make me, then-and I speak her on behalf of all those trillions of atoms-I should really make the most of things.
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