SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY IN ISLAMIC CIVILIZATION
CAUSES FOR DECAY AND MEASURES FOR REVIVAL
HONORABLE SYED SHAHABUDDIN
The holy Qur’an is not a book of science or a manual of technology. According to a well known Hadith, the holy prophet himself disclaimed being a scientific expert but the world today is dominated by science and technology. It is, therefore, essential for the Muslims of the world to try to regain the position they held during the first five centuries of Islam in the field of science and technology and continuously take note of the forces that are released by the latest discoveries in science and the latest development of technology, as they both create new situations for humanity to face.
The holy Qur’an teaches hat all knowledge emanates from Allah and that man is his voice-regent on earth and as such all natural resources are at his disposal. The holy Qur’an also repeatedly urges man to ponder over the natural phenomenon and discuss the laws of nature, which the Qur’an calls Sunnatullah. Islam expects man to use the knowledge (ILM-E –NAFE), he gains by unlocking the secrets of nation to improve human situation and promote the welfare of mankind.
Islam does not define ILM exclusively as Deen or in terms of theology. The term ILM covers all knowledge and all its application in various fields. A Muslim pursues ILM as a divine mandate in the belief that there can be no contradiction between the Word of God and the Work of God, as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan put it. A Muslim believes that whatever man discovers or invents shall only enlarge his comprehension of the Holy Qur’an and extends his control and exploitation of the material world.
The Arab-Islamic civilization reached its peak under the early Abbasids; they collected knowledge in various fields from all corners of the world; Greece and Rome, China and India. In the process they transmitted it other parts of the world. In his Introduction to the History of Science (Volume 1-5), George Sarton divides history into 50 year modules dominated by a leading scientific personality. In Greek time, it was Plato, Aristotle, Euclid and Pythagoras, in the Abbasid period between 750-1100 AD, he names Muslim savants for seven successive modules; Jabr, Khwarism, Razi, Masoodi, Abul Wafa and Omar Khayyam. 1100 AD did not mean an abrupt end to the march of science in the Arab-Islamic world. There was a slow down because of political turmoil, economic decay and social anarchy but right up to 1500 AD Arab-Islamic Civilization continued to produce great scientists who made creative contribution. Among them, Charles Singer notes in his History of Technology (in 4 vol.) the names of Ibn Rushd, Ibn Sina, Tusi, Abu Nafees and Al Haythem. By 1500 AD the Europeans had caught up with the Arabs and taken over the leadership in scientific progress. They studied in Muslim Universities and learnt Arabic and translated Arabic texts. There are, however, still hundreds of thousands of Arabic, Persian and Turkish manuscripts dating right up to 1800 AD which have not been edited or translated and indeed have remained outside the realm of history. He says, and rightly and rightly so, that Islam awaits its Joseph Needham to produce a comprehensive history f Islamic contribution in the field of science and technology, as Needhan did for China.
Europe took over with a new zeal after winning the Battle of Poitiers in France and the Restoration in Spain. By the 17th century, Europe had not only regained the whole of Spain and halted Islamic advance by defeating the Ottomans on the gate of Vienna but also absorbed the knowledge gained through Arabs. Socially, it had liberated itself from the yoke of feudalism and the church establishment. Its creativity rose to new heights with the industrial revolution and slowly it became the master of the known world when European capitalism was transformed into colonialism and imperialism. From the 17th century, Europe then became the main developer of Science and technology and floods the landscape of knowledge with its discoveries and inventions which continues to this day. A biographical dictionary on two thousand selected scientists from the Greek times to the modern age published by the Royal society gives the names of thousands of Europeans who entered the stream of knowledge, mostly after the 17th century. This dictionary includes only about 5 names of Muslim savants. anser
In the 16th century, the three biggest empires were the Moghul in India, the Safavid in Iran and the Ottoman in Turkey. They built the Taj Mahal, the city of Isfahan and the Masjid-e-Sulaimania. But, there is no record that they developed any industry beyond the traditional crafts; they did not invent machines or learn to generate power which could run factories and produce weapons of war like the canon. As affluent civilizations they built cities and palaces, the like of which were unknown in Europe, but they did not manufacture a watch. Since then, the Muslims of the world have been going down–hill and the technical gap between the West and the Muslims have been increasing.
Today, the Muslims form one fourth of mankind. Among the major Muslim communities are; Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, each with more than 100 million people; Egypt, Nigeria, Turkey and Iran each with above 50 million people; Algeria, Morocco, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan and Ethiopia each with more than 25 million. But in science and technology or industrial output there can be no comparison between the West and the Muslim world as a whole.
The overall literacy rate of the Muslim world is less than 50%.The number of secondary schools, colleges, professional institution and universities also bears no comparison with the West. The Muslim world as a whole has about 1000 universities but none figures in the list of top 500 universities of the world except perhaps one or two in Turkey. There are very few centre of excellence. Muslim world has produced only 3 or 4 Nobel laureates. Measured by production of books, the entire output of the Arab World is less than that of Spain, a small European country. The OIC Committee on Science and Technology estimated that their production of scientific papers between 1995-2005 is very scanty in quantity and poor in quality. Muslim states and communities are not all poor, some of them which are really mini-states have their per capita GDP comparable to that of the USA but these rich states use their wealth to purchase the loyalty of their people or engage in extravagant and wasteful consumption, in competition with their neighbors or construction of architectural fantasies. Of late, a few Muslim states are building cities of knowledge but with imported teachers and few students. Because they lack educational facilities, they are trying to build from the top!
Nehru once wrote that there can be no capitalist physics and no communist chemistry. In the same manner, there can be no Islamic science and no non-Muslim technology. Science and Technology are the common heritage of all mankind. Allah in his wisdom decides which people and which country shall hold the banner of knowledge in their hands and for how long. No state, no people, no race, can enjoy a monopoly for all time. So, perhaps there is no point for Muslims to glorify the past and lament the present, except to ponder over the reasons why the Arab-Islamic peoples who secured and preserved the ancient heritage of Greece and Rome and who transmitted knowledge from China and India to Europe and produced intellectual giants, who enjoyed a head- start in Europe have today become the objects of history and, secondly, to define remedial measures which the Arab Islamic peoples can take to accelerate their progress, bridge the gap and perhaps overtake the West, when their time comes.
Looking at history, it is clear that political instability due to inherent tribalism and interse, rivalry growing sectarianism, apathy of the ruling classes and their profligacy, civil wars and external invasion like the Mongol, and the European were the main reason for decay. European colonization disintegrated the Islamic world into small states, quarreling with neighbors with encouragement by foreign powers. In the Muslim world feudalism survived and there was no separation between the Church and state. Their land –based empires were not fully conscious importance of the oceans and did not see as a threat to their integrity.
The main economic reason was the European discovery of sea route by the Cape of Good Hope which enables Europe to penetrate the Arabian Sea, bypass the Islamic world and cut off trade between South Asia and the East Indies on one hand and Europe on the other. This curtailed the profit resulting from trade and left people in the region in economic distress till the discovery of petroleum. The great Muslim empires granted concessions to foreign merchants, to the East India Company by the Moghuls and to Levant Company by the Ottomans, they were subsequently granted exemption from custom duty on the goods of foreign origin that they imported. This killed indigenous production and reduced the empires into markets for the West. Subsequently, the emergent imperial powers took control of non-renewable natural resources, particularly the petroleum.
There were major religious and cultural reasons also. There was stagnation of intellectual life ‘Taqlid’ replaced Tajdid, the gates of Ijtihad were closed and religious conflict became rampant. Innovation was frozen; freedom of thought and expression was lost in the political vacuum and due to religious differences. Religious establishment could not keep pace with social evolution. The Mu`tazala and the Shia were persecuted. The traditional equality of Islamic society was lost with the emergence of classes, corruption and unjust distribution of social income.
Today, a few states control the enormous resources of the Muslim world which are used wastefully at the behest of foreign consultants, contractors and suppliers who are only re-cycling the petro-dollars rather than investing for the future or for uplifting their people, or the Muslim world as a whole, as mentioned above. Muslim states have undertaken prestigious projects of building skyscrapers of steel and glass. Some have built educational centres but they should know that institutions take time to achieve academic standing and credibility.
What needs to be done, first and foremost, is that Muslim states must be liberated from their own short-sighted and self-centred rulers and their people should enjoy democracy based on the will of the people. The principles of freedom, equality and justice are all basic Islamic values. Once personal, family and tribal interests are out of the way, these states will move towards political unification and the creation of a common market in the Muslim world. The Arabs with a common history, language, religion and culture face no impediments and they have the advantage of territory and population. Next comes, South Asia which also has the land, the people, the culture and experience to emerge as a global giant. The third possibility lies in South East Asia led by Indonesia. There are two more possibilities in Central Asia and in West Africa. All these can become the future poles of the world, as global giants. But, so far the Muslim states have no coherent policy for eventual unification as in Europe or on planned development of science and technology.
The Muslim communities, of all states in general, must invest their surplus in mass education. With a wide statistical base, education shall breed genius which will serve as the feeder for new colleges and universities and cater to future centres of excellence. The Muslim states can and should also encourage a reversal of the brain drain.
Incidentally, they can begin their advent in technology by dismantling foreign products and manufacturing imitations as Japanese did. Later, they can develop their own designing and manufacturing capacity. They have to learn English and other foreign languages which are today the vehicles of science and technology, as Arabic once was particularly German, Russian, and French & Chinese.
Muslim society has to shade its orthodoxy and develop a scientific outlook. This means rejection and non-acceptance of authority except on basis of free discussion and experimentation. This also means adopting a rational approach in thinking and toleration of deviations and differences and respect for freedom of personal belief. To develop Islamic identity; the society should ensure that at the school level all children acquire basic knowledge of Islamic fundamentals at their most impressionable age in order that as Muslims they keep faith and preserve their identity while they earn their livelihood or become scientists and technologists, politicians or administrators or teachers.
My conclusion is that the Muslim world stretching from the Pacific, to the Atlantic is capable of bridging the gap of the centuries because they not only retain their religious consciousness but also preserve their essential cultural heritage, their traditional crafts and the skills & technology they inherited. Internationally these states can together press the world community to promote unfettered freedom of movement of knowledge science and technology, experience and skills, goods of trade and of culture across frontiers. As sovereign nations, they can take full charge of their natural resources and exploit them with their own technicians and skilled manpower, trading on mutually beneficial terms with the rest of the world which needs their petroleum as well as their mineral resources and manpower to keep it going. The world of today is moving much faster and within a foreseeable future the Islamic world and other parts of the East shall produce a new crop of science and technology, hopefully to overtake the West by the end of the 21st century.
To a Muslim, History is a manifestation of Allah’s will and rise and fall of human groups is in the hands of Allah. A Muslim should, however, remember that in the Holy Quran, Allah promises to help those who help themselves. Though, systematic encouragement of human genius and talent Muslim can look forward to a plentiful crops of Nobel Laureates, if, and only if, available capital is invested in mass productive enterprises specially agriculture and industry and above all, restoring the Islamic mode of life-austerity, equality and justice.
Syed Shahabuddin (MAPH) is a well known in the political and academic circles as well as in the mass media. In his many incarnations he has been a university teacher, a diplomat, who served as an ambassador and a government official who was at the time of his seeking pre-mature retirement, the Joint Secretary in charge of South East Asia, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific in the Ministry of External Affairs. He was a MP for three terms between 1979 and 1996 and made a mark as a Parliamentarian. He has edited Muslim India, the monthly journal of research, documentation and reference from 1983 to 2002 and again from July 2006. He has been a regular contributor on current affairs in the media and a familiar participant in seminars and TV discussions. He has been a member of many learned bodies and associated with several Muslim institutions and organizations.