Hasan Zillur Rahim

Scientific renaissance in Muslim countries

December 27, 2011

157766_e4b5e3f7-f752-43c8-b500-82fb43ae1bacA remarkable interactive exhibition called “Islamic Science Rediscovered” at the Tech Museum in San Jose, California, (http://www.thetech.org/islamic_science_rediscovered/) in the heart of Silicon Valley is drawing large number of visitors. The exhibition celebrates “a Golden Age of Science and Technology” when, from the 8th to the 13th century, Muslims led the world in such fields as architecture, arts , astronomy, engineering, exploration, flight, mathematics, medicine, optics and water management.

A timeline highlighting the significant events in Islamic culture and science during the golden age greets the visitor at the entrance to the exhibit. Once you grasp the outline, you can begin to focus on the specifics.

In “Technology and Inventions,” we are acquainted with the remarkable Banu Musa Brothers – Muhammad, Ahmad and Hasan (800/805/810-873) – who excelled in engineering, mathematics and astronomy. Al-Jazari (1136-1206) was a polymath who invented over fifty mechanical devices and automated machines, described in meticulous detail in his “Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices.” What distinguished Muslim technologists were that their inventions made people prosperous without causing any social disruption.

A segment captures the monumental contributions that mathematicians like al-Khwarizmi (780-850), al-Uqlidisi (920-980) and others made to arithmetic, geometry, algebra and trigonometry. Al-Uqlidisi discovered decimal fractions. Khwarizmi’s name is associated with algorithm and algebra. The term “algebra,” which literally means “to restore the unknown,” is taken from his book al-Kitab al-mukhtasar fi hisab al-jabr wa’l-muqabala, (The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing). He classified all equations into three main types and discovered solutions for each. Mathematical discoveries of Muslims have been used as compositions in pure harmony in architecture, ranging from the al-Hambra in Granada, Spain, to Stanford University in California.

Abbas Ibn Firnas (810-887), the Andalusian polymath, drew inspiration from birds and became a pioneer of flight. Using the flying machine that he built, he was able to fly a millennium before the Wright brothers were even born!

An European physician, De Poure, put Muslim contributions to medicine in perspective when he wrote, “Medicine was absent until Hippocrates created it, dead until Gazen revived it, dispersed until Rhazes (al-Razi) collected it, and deficient until Avicenna (Ibn Sina) completed it.” In his Qanun fi al-Tib (The Canon of Medicine), for instance, Ibn Sina (980-1037) offered treatments for every disease known until the 11th century and described over 760 drugs. It was translated in Latin in the 12th century and remained the standard medical text for almost 5 centuries. Al-Zahrawi (940-1013) revolutionized surgery and is considered the father of modern surgery. Many of the surgical tools he invented are still in use today. Ibn al-Nafis (1213-1288) described the circulatory system 300 years before William Harvey did. The first modern hospital was built in Baghdad over a thousand years ago. The first pharmacies were established in the Muslim world 400 years before they were in Europe.

Ibn al-Haytham (965-1039) was the greatest physicist of his time. He laid the foundation of modern optics by discovering that light travels in a straight line and that image is composed of light reflected from the object into the eye. He created the first pinhole camera to experimentally verify his observations. The word camera, in fact, comes from the Arabic word “qamara.”

The exhibition lists many more Muslims than are mentioned here – polymaths, scientists, physicians and explorers – whose extraordinary creativity and ability to synthesize ideas from various cultures, from Greece to Egypt to India, led to so many original and groundbreaking discoveries. That the exhibition is taking place in California’s Silicon Valley is only appropriate. After all, the roots of the Valley’ innovation – algorithms, Arabic numerals, astronomy, aviation, engineering, medicine, biology, physics – are watered in large part by the discoveries made during the Islamic Golden Age.

For a Muslim visitor, though, a subversive thought rears its head. Repeatedly I found myself asking, “So what happened? Why the staggering decline?”

Consider just one example. The Bait al-Hikma (The House of Wisdom) in Baghdad was the most enlightened intellectual center during the Golden Age. As part of its library and translation services, Muslim scholars translated into Arabic nearly the entire Greek corpus in medicine, mathematics and natural philosophy. A Western historian has written that this translation movement was equal in significance to the Italian Renaissance and the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

But now? Spain, hardly an intellectual power, currently translates more books per year than the entire Arab world has in the past several hundred years!

As Pervez Hoodbhoy, an MIT-trained Pakistani physicist has noted, 46 Muslim countries combined contribute 1.17% of the world’s scientific literature; India (1.66%) and Spain (1.48%) each contribute more to the world’s scientific literature than these countries combined. A telling remark comes from Nobel-physicist Steven Weinberg: “Though there are talented scientists of Muslim origin working productively in the West, for forty years I have not seen a single paper by a physicist or astronomer working in a Muslim country that was worth reading.”

Thousands of papers and books have been published about the decline of science in Muslim countries. These include the ascendance of religious orthodoxy, the defeat of the rational Mutazilites by the dogmatic, anti-rationalist Asharites, colonialism, dynastic rule, authoritarianism, backward educational system, removal of science and mathematics from the madrassa curriculum, disappearance of the spirit of inquiry, manufactured conflict between faith and reason, underfunding for science, triumph of politics over research, and so on.

The contrast between where Muslims stand now and where they stood in the Golden Age is stark and painful. But I also think we need to start looking toward the future rather than lamenting the status quo. While we must learn from history, it is self-defeating to wallow in it. Mere longing and walking down Nostalgia Avenue will not bring back past glory.

A Muslim Nobel-laureate offers a practical vision.

Ahmed H. Zewail, an Egyptian-American and a professor at Caltech, won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1999 “for his studies of the transition states of chemical reactions using femtosecond spectroscopy”. He is one of only two Muslim scientists and Nobel-Laureates featured in the exhibit, the other being Abdus Salam (1926-1996) who shared the 1979 Nobel Prize in physics with Steven Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow “for their contributions to the theory of the unified weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles, including, inter alia, the prediction of the weak neutral current”.

Dr. Zewail is, of course, concerned mostly with Egypt, particularly in the light of the Arab Spring, but the four pillars of change he advocates for a renaissance in the country of his birth are true for other Muslim countries as well. These are a) reform of the constitution, b) respect for the rule of law, including a strong and independent judiciary, c) a renaissance in education, and d) reform of the media.

Let’s just focus on the third pillar, keeping in mind that the four together form a holistic whole. By dint of his stature, Zewail was able to pass a decree in Egypt to establish a City of Science and Technology “for the purpose of modernizing science and technology education and advancing the level of productivity. We have already raised nearly $200 million as the seed for an endowment to establish a campus in Zewail City that will be governed by a board of trustees made up of distinguished scholars, including the president of Caltech and six Nobel Prize winners. These steps are the beginning of a nationwide transformation.”

The vision is clear. Institutions of higher learning must not be prisoners of politics and nepotism. Instead, their only goal must be the pursuit of knowledge and the training of the mind, and their only currency the quality of scholarship and the seeds of discovery. While democratic governments come and go by the will of its citizenry (and for true democracy to flourish, the citizenry must be knowledgeable, responsible and forward-looking), a nation’s universities and research centers cannot thrive if they become beholden to the power and the politics of the day. Can institutions like Caltech, Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, Oxford and Cambridge maintain their world-class standards if they are to staff their departments with political appointees and hacks? Of course not! This, however, is a serious issue in all Muslim countries today and it must be addressed if we are not to remain peripheral in a world increasingly dominated by science and technology.

The Arab Spring has stirred hopes of good governance and great education in Arab countries and, by extension, in all Muslim countries, although the current clashes in Egypt show that Dr. Zewail’s vision so far remains just that, a vision. But let’s at least agree to banish silly and false ideas like the conflict of faith and reason from our discourse. If there was a conflict between faith and reason, there would not have been any Golden Age of Islamic Science.

An exhibition like “Islamic Science Rediscovered” reminds a visitor that a modern House of Wisdom can arise in a new Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus, or Dhaka in the next fifty or hundred years if Muslims set their priorities right, pursue self-dependence and direct their efforts and resources toward innovation and discovery.

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Hasan Zillur Rahim is a technologist and educator working in Silicon Valley, California.

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13 Responses to “ Scientific renaissance in Muslim countries ”

  1. Canan on June 8, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    It’s not the Muslims who call the Qur’an amazing or appreciate it; non-Muslims too term Quran the same.

  2. Muhammad on December 31, 2011 at 2:46 am

    Mr. Syed Imtiaz. Yes I agree we also need a Spring. Though this is not in any way related to this article, thanks for sharing such a thought.

    • Syed Imtiaz Ali on January 1, 2012 at 1:29 pm

      Thanks for your kind comments.
      If we fail to look at the small picture, the big picture might also appear hazy. as almost everything is ‘connected’ no matter how remotely. If we are to make it contextual to our state of affairs, it is very relevant, sir.
      We can still try to (build a spring) make hay, while our spirit shines.
      Happy new year to all in the ‘forum’!

  3. afsan chowdhury on December 30, 2011 at 11:11 pm

    Why do we need to have a revival of Islamic golden age and not just join the New golden age which is obviously all around in the world. Muslims had their innings and it’s not the sense of science but the cultural issues, some of which are located in their faith that prevents Muslims from reaching forward.

    While Muslims including yourself do well in the West, few Muslims in their hometown do well. This has more to do with socio-economics than anything else. But it’s also interesting to ask why the Arabs fail to provide any science when Indians -Kafirs, Hindus- are doing so well.

    In the end, such an attitude becomes an endorsement of racism, faithism etc because without celebrating science, we celebrate the faith group we belong to.

    It’s our search for our own kind even in science that has prevented us from becoming scientific. Why is there no appreciation of Indian science if you will when we all are Indians too? If Islam is the ultimate faith of all humanity why is there so much silence of what the rest of the humanity achieves?

    The post writer’s attitude is not scientific, I am afraid.

    • Kazi Saifuddin Hossain on January 1, 2012 at 9:44 pm

      You have mixed up two different things – faith and science. Science is all about our world of matter; on the contrary, faith is the eternal question about the soul, life and death, hereafter, redemption from sins, nearness of the Creator etc, regarding which science has no answer or knowledge as of yet. In the Quran Allah has alluded to the fact that any nation, be it Muslim or non-Muslim, who strives toward achieving the goal of worldly progress, shall reap the benefits of its efforts. Therefore, Islam is not silent about the achievements of ‘the rest of the humanity’ as quoted by you.

      You said there are some cultural issues located in the Muslim faith that prevent us from reaching forward. Yet, you contradicted yourself when you said that Muslims in the West were doing well than their brethren-in-Islam living in Muslim majority countries; and that this had more to do with socio-economics than anything else. The fallen state of these Muslim countries are the undoing of their leaders who have strayed from the religion and morality. So why blame Islam for the faults of someone else? Why commit ‘udor pindi budor ghare’? If we can create the atmosphere congenial to science and material progress that exists in the West, we should also be able to ‘reach forward’. Muslims working in the West are setting an example to this end.

      • Kazi Saifuddin Hossain on January 2, 2012 at 8:16 pm

        Post-script:

        Our Prophet (peace be upon him) said in a hadith – “Search for knowledge, even it is (located) in China”. We know that China was a non-Muslim country at the time. This hadith is a sound evidence that Islam is not silent about the achievements of ‘the rest of the humanity’.

    • Muhammad on January 1, 2012 at 9:57 pm

      Sir, we are talking about the contribution of the Muslim scholars here. Yes Indians, Chinese, Greeks, Romans and others have contributed to science and technology. However, that can be the topic of another article.If bdnews24.com publishes an article about achievements of Indian scientists (for example Aryabhata who gave the concept of zero) we will not argue against the article.This article is completely relevant because of the fact that, Holy Quran encourages scholarly thinking and pursuit of Knowledge. There are many Ayats in Quran which encourage Archaeological, Astronomical and Biological Investigations. Thank You.

  4. syed imtiaz ali on December 30, 2011 at 8:21 pm

    Hello there, bdnews24.com, please put up all the relevant comments on the piece. Can’t believe there are only two of them on such important issue. Many thanks for your promptness.

  5. Muhammad on December 30, 2011 at 12:21 am

    Thank you for a nice article sir. in Al-Quran, reasoning and thoughtfulness are strongly encouraged.

  6. Syed Imtiaz Ali on December 28, 2011 at 10:26 pm

    Reading your article after a long time, Dr. Rahim. Many thanks.

    The subject you have chosen is of great importance and insightful for the nation’s future. What is the Muslim World doing today? The answer is clear, yet no solution in sight, no reflection and there will be no definitive course of action. Alas! And I hope the VCs and also the concerned reads your article.

    You have said it just right and I quote:

    “The vision is clear. Institutions of higher learning must not be prisoners of politics and nepotism”. “a nation’s universities and research centers cannot thrive if they become beholden to the power and the politics of the day. Can institutions like Caltech, Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, Oxford and Cambridge maintain their world-class standards if they are to staff their departments with political appointees and hacks? Of course not!”.

    Research and development shall be the REAL FOCUS of the higher seats of learning, nothing else. If universities do not recognize talent who will? Then why is political appointments made?

    We need a Bangladesh Spring to give ourselves a fresh start, by re-casting our destiny. What we are doing now will not stand the test of time for the 21st century. We must start with cleaning our educational institutions. Anyone knows well about our new education policy? I do not think it is made public.

    Dusting ourselves, pulling up our socks and a scholarly approach will gradually take us there, where we should belong; higher seat of learning only, nothing short of that.

  7. Mahmood Makki on December 28, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    Thank you brother for reminding us of the golden past.

  8. Arif on December 27, 2011 at 9:25 pm

    But, the real difference is their abandonment of religion. The striving for knowledge will be rejuvenated once they get back to the basics of their religion.

    Here in Bangladesh, I cannot see much hope. In public bus while going to office, I see youth busy in either of three things: facebook, music and adda.

    • parvez ahmed on January 5, 2012 at 12:12 am

      really…. lol

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