In praise of Islamic civilization
Speech of Carly Florina (CEO Hewlett Packard)
There was once a civilization that was the greatest in the world.
It was able to create a continental super-state that stretched from
ocean to ocean, and from northern climes to tropics and deserts. Within
its dominion lived hundreds of millions of people, of different creeds
and ethnic origins.
One of its languages became the universal language of much of the world,
the bridge between the peoples of a hundred lands. Its armies were made
up of people of many nationalities, and its military protection allowed
a degree of peace and prosperity that had never been known. The reach
of this civilization’s commerce extended from Latin America to China,
and everywhere in between.
And this civilization was driven more than anything, by invention. Its
architects designed buildings that defied gravity. Its mathematicians
created the algebra and algorithms that would enable the building of
computers, and the creation of encryption. Its doctors examined the
human body, and found new cures for disease. Its astronomers looked into
the heavens, named the stars, and paved the way for space travel and
Its writers created thousands of stories. Stories of courage, romance
and magic. Its poets wrote of love, when others before them were too
steeped in fear to think of such things.
When other nations were afraid of ideas, this civilization thrived on
them, and kept them alive. When censors threatened to wipe out knowledge
from past civilizations, this civilization kept the knowledge alive,
and passed it on to others.
While modern Western civilization shares many of these traits, the
civilization I’m talking about was the Islamic world from the year 800
to 1600, which included the Ottoman Empire and the courts of Baghdad,
Damascus and Cairo, and enlightened rulers like Suleiman the
Although we are often unaware of our indebtedness to this other
civilization, its gifts are very much a part of our heritage. The
technology industry would not exist without the contributions of Arab
mathematicians. Sufi poet-philosophers like Rumi challenged our notions
of self and truth. Leaders like Suleiman contributed to our notions of
tolerance and civic leadership.
And perhaps we can learn a lesson from his example: It was leadership
based on meritocracy, not inheritance. It was leadership that harnessed
the full capabilities of a very diverse population–that included
Christianity, Islamic, and Jewish traditions.
This kind of enlightened leadership — leadership that nurtured culture,
sustainability, diversity and courage — led to 800 years of invention
In dark and serious times like this, we must affirm our commitment to
building societies and institutions that aspire to this kind of
greatness. More than ever, we must focus on the importance of
leadership– bold acts of leadership and decidedly personal acts of