Monday, January 26, 2009

Muslims must learn from the past, but live for the future


What do parachutes, combination locks, anaesthetics, alcohol and fountain pens have in common? This is not a trick question, and I bet no one can guess the answer. They all had their origins with Muslim scientists and scholars, hundreds of years ago.

There are many among us today who claim that Muslims or Arabs introduced science to the world. Many who make that claim also bask in its reflected glory. Before the Muslim empire, however, many civilisations contributed to science. These include the Egyptians, Greeks, Chinese, Romans, Indians and Mayans.

The Egyptians were master architects; they amassed knowledge in great libraries and calculated the Earth’s diameter with reasonable accuracy thousands of years ago. Many Roman structures and monuments are still standing. Ancient civilisations gave us that indispensable number, zero. Indeed, it is hypothesised that cavemen and even Neanderthals, who hunted the woolly mammoth and fished with their hands, administered medicinal herbs and plants. The West, ever since the Industrial Revolution, has embarked on an unprecedented quest to improve and to use science at an accelerated rate. Today, it is the clear leader.
For those who live in the past, I have a few plain messages: First, we in modern day life don’t have a claim on that historic glory; the pride in those accomplishments belongs to the brilliant heroes, the achievers of a lost era, and not to us. Second, if people hundreds of years ago, who lived with no calculators or internet, managed these discoveries, we can too – especially with today’s powerful and easily available access to knowledge.
There is considerable evidence of a civilisation “comeback”: witness the growth and advances in all fields by the Chinese and the Indians. Both countries can and will soon rival the West. It is said that the Indian and the Chinese civilisations led the world for hundreds of years, and the past few hundred years are merely a brief dip in their history. Let me also borrow a definition of civilisation as a social system that allows us to increase our cultural production. Embedded in cultural production are social, political and ethical standards, and a healthy dose of the pursuit of science and art.
It is sad that students of science are simply not made welcome in our society. Many parents discourage their children from studying physics, “because we don’t have advanced laboratories, so what’s the point?”.


Mathematics or chemistry will only make you a teacher (what’s wrong with that anyway?); a mechanical engineer is deemed fit only to fix our air conditioning and our cars; and a marine biologist or a metallurgist… who is that? The only ones who seem to receive respect are medical doctors, for our obvious health needs, and geologists to find oil. These are only the basic levels of scientific fields, and the gap between what little knowledge we have and that of an advanced nation is approaching a light year (to use a scientific term).
There are two more cultural phenomena that I find disturbing and detrimental. First, huge numbers of students, at least in the Gulf, seem to be studying business-related subjects. I am not sure if it’s a case of overzealous marketing by commercial colleges or demand for easier studies by ill-prepared students. Latching on to this trend, and as a measure to appease worried parents, some high schools have introduced these topics instead of focussing on the natural sciences or the arts. And there still exists a tendency to limit half of our society to studying anything they like as long as it’s nursing or teaching. That alone is sufficient to stunt cultural productivity.
I have a final message for the history devotees. It is OK to be proud of your history, but it is essential that you learn from it. It is also essential to learn from others’ history. A powerful lesson is to move towards industrialisation, which is proven to force and exploit scientific advance. Furthermore, to learn from history, you have to first capture it. The most common representation of history we have nowadays is in some TV series, which range from the comical because of the mauled dialect of second-grade actors, to the overly theatrical and bloody, depending on the director. We read our history from grade school to high school, but we read it to memorise, not to learn.
How did I learn about the origin of parachutes and combination locks anyway? Did I find it compiled by an Arabic or Muslim scholar or historian or even in a book fair within a 2000km radius? A schoolbook or a local university project, perhaps? You can guess the answer this time: a shameful No. On a summer holiday, I spotted those seemingly unrelated words typed on informative boards along the steps of the Museum of Science and Industry, leading to one of its major exhibitions entitled 1001 Islamic Inventions.
The museum is in Manchester, England.

By Anees Sultan, a writer and businessman based in Oman

1 comment:

Cruzeiro said...

These nut cases don't seem to understand that there is no such thing as "Islamic" Inventions, just as there is none that might be "Christian", "Hindu" or "Atheist".

Inventions are borne out of a scientific mind.
It is Scientific- period.
It is this silly "islamic this & that" chest-thumping that have people laughing at the proponents of these silly ideas ...