Whatever happened to Islamic Science?

By Molouk Y. Ba-Isa, Arab News Staff

These days it is a challenge for Muslim parents to help their children develop a strong sense of pride in their Islamic faith. Satellite channels bring a constant stream of anti-Islamic messages into our homes. Be it in the form of inaccurate, prejudicial news briefs or hideous character portrayals in popular films, our children struggle to find Muslims to emulate as heroes. Our beloved Prophet, peace be upon him, will of course always be the ultimate example. However, our children also urgently need Islamic heroes of a more common sort.

I remember walking into the room of a friend?s teenager and seeing on his wall a poster of Albert Einstein. The young man was determined to grow up and make great discoveries in the field of physics, just like his hero. From the early teenage years, children attending schools in the West know something about the names Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Franklin and Curie. But ask 13-year-olds educated in Saudi schools about names like Muhammad ibn Jabir ibn Sinan Abu Abdullah Al-Battani, Muhammad ibn Zakariyya Al-Razi, Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni, Abdus Salaam or Ahmad Zewail, and more often than not they are clueless as to the contributions of these scientists. In a quick and unscientific survey of several dozen Saudi high school students, the only Muslim scientists the students remembered were Kindi, Khawarizmi and Ibn Sina.

Most were embarrassed by the situation but they explained that starting in 7th grade, once in a while they were forced for exams to memorize the names of a few scientists and some small detail about their contributions. Once the exams finished, they forgot all about them. None of the students had ever done a research paper about a great Muslim scientist. The little information that came in their schoolbooks told nothing about the life of these historical figures. So these great scientists remained obscure and uninteresting.

That's really a pity because Muslims have made enormous contributions to science. During Islam?s Golden Age, which started approximately in the mid-8th century and continued for 400 years, Arabic was the language of science. There were many reasons behind the Golden Age. Free trade through a vast empire allowed the free movement of people, goods and also ideas. Because Muslims valued knowledge, intellectuals became popular and sought-after. Scholars became the heroes of the age. Improved papermaking techniques enabled the creation of large libraries where collected knowledge was stored. Initially this was the knowledge of the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and peoples of the Indian subcontinent, but with time, Muslim scientists added their own thoughts and ideas. The Arabian system of numeration was developed, surpassing that of the Alexandrians, the Greeks and the Romans. Public education was delivered through the madrasas and learning blossomed. Hospitals also began to play an important role in the teaching of medicine and pharmacology. The science of astronomy was aided by the building of publicly supported observatories.

While Europe was in the midst of the Dark Ages, Islamic scientists were adding daily to the world?s body of scientific knowledge. The creation of the "zero" symbol turned mathematics into a science. Al-Khawarizmi, a Muslim mathematician and court astronomer in Baghdad, wrote the book "Hisab Al-Jabr Wal-Mugabalah" (Book of the Calculations of Restoration and Reduction) and in doing so became the "Father of Algebra." Al-Battani was a great astronomer and also improved trigonometry and computed the first table of cotangents. Al-Biruni wrote numerous studies of numerical series, plus the first independent work on spherical trigonometry. Al-Khashani, Amili, Al-Tusi, Yazdi, Al-Maghribi, Al-Misri, Al-Mardini, Khayyam, Al-Mahani, Al-Kuhi, Al-Buzjani, Al-Iraq, Al-Khujandi, Ibn Yunus and Al-Karaji are just some of the mathematicians that made great contributions to the field. Few are remembered.

Muslim physicians were the first to be recognized as scientists rather than barbaric quacks. In Islam?s Golden Age, medicine became a science with observation and experimentation as its foundation. As a result of the teachings of Islam, personal hygiene and cleanliness improved among the general population, and the rise and spread of disease was reduced. In the 12th century, Abu Marwan ibn Zuhr wrote the first scientific book about food and health, "Kitab Al-Aghdhiyah" (The Book of Diet). Ophthalmology became an area of special interest. Abu Ruh Muhammad Al-Jurjani wrote "Nur Al-Ayn" (Light of the Eye), which became the reference guide of its time. Al-Razi grew in reputation until he was known as the greatest Muslim physician in the experimental and clinical aspects of medicine. Al-Razi was followed by Al-Farabi, Al-Majusi, Al-Zahrawi, Ibn Isa, Ibn Sina, Al-Dakhwar, Ibn Nafis, Ibn Al-Quff, and many others.

By now, readers should be starting to understand the astounding numbers of scientists that the Islamic world has produced. From the 8th century, Muslim scientists have made lasting contributions in fields as diverse as botany, zoology, pharmacology, ecology, astronomy, geography, physics and agriculture. Due to their efforts in keeping scientific thought alive, the European Renaissance was possible.

So did Muslims suddenly stop being scientists? Well, Western publishers would like everyone to think so. In a lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Seyyid Hossein Nasr, university professor, Islamic Studies, George Washington University, Washington, D.C. said: "First of all, (take) the overlooking of 700 years, not 70 years, 700 years, of Islamic intellectual history during which the Muslims were supposed to have done nothing. They were supposed to have been decadent for 700 years. Now how can you revive a patient that has been dead for that long a time? The idea (which) is propagated in the West (is) that Muslims are very brilliant. They did science and things like that. (Then) suddenly (they) decided to turn the switch off and went to selling beads and playing with their rosaries in the bazaar for the next 700 years... This, of course, is total nonsense and it brings about a sclerosis, intellectually, which is far from being trivial.

"Over (the) 20 years I have taught at Tehran University, I always felt, (our students) could never overcome this very long historical loss of memory. Somehow it was very difficult for them. They wanted to connect themselves to Al-Biruni and Khawarizmi and people like that, but this hiatus was simply too long. This hiatus has not been created by history itself. It has been created by the study of history from the particular perspective of Western scholarship, which is as I said, perfectly (within) its right in its claim that Islam is interesting only till the moment that it influences the West. The great mistake is when that objective divides the history of Islam (into a period of productivity and one of degeneration). In the field of history of science, that is a very important element."

So how can we stimulate our children?s interest in Muslim scientists? We must help them learn about them of course. If we can?t interest them in historical role models, then we must find more contemporary scientists for them to emulate. A good place to start looking for such modern, larger than life figures, is at the Nobel e-Museum.

At the Nobel e-Museum is the biography of the first Muslim to win the Nobel Prize. Dr. Abdus Salam won the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics. According to his biographer, Abdus Salam was born in 1926 "in Jhang, a small town in what is now Pakistan. His father was an official in the Department of Education in a poor farming district. His family has a long tradition of piety and learning. When he cycled home from Lahore, at the age of 14, after gaining the highest marks ever recorded for the Matriculation Examination at the University of the Punjab, the whole town turned out to welcome him." Read more about his life at http://www.nobel.se/physics/laureates/1979/salam-bio.html.

Also take the time to let your children get to know Dr. Ahmad Zewail. He won the 1999 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. In his fascinating online autobiography, Zewail writes: "On the banks of the Nile, the Rosetta branch, I lived an enjoyable childhood in the City of Disuq, which is the home of the famous mosque, Sidi Ibrahim. I was born (Feb. 26, 1946) in nearby Damanhur, only 60 km from Alexandria. In retrospect, it is remarkable that my childhood origins were flanked by two great places ? Rosetta, the city where the famous Stone was discovered, and Alexandria, the home of ancient learning. The dawn of my memory begins with my days, at Disuq?s preparatory school. I am the only son in a family of three sisters and two loving parents." The autobiography continues at: http://www.nobel.se/chemistry/laureates/1999/zewail-autobio.html

One important fact that turned up in the research for this article is that no matter how uncomfortable it may make the Western world, Islamic Science is now as much a part of the West as the East. In the future, an American-born Muslim scientist might win the Nobel Prize and Muslim children would have a new type of Western role model, far removed from the standard movie stars and sports figures. Dr. Iqbal Unus, in his article, "Muslim Scientists & Engineers: From Then to Now," posted at the website of the Association of Muslim Scientists and Engineers (amse.net) pointed out that some of the best young minds in the Muslim world have been drawn to the United States.

"Strange as it may sound, there are more highly qualified Muslim science and engineering professionals in North America than in any one single Muslim country," wrote Unus. "This unique science and engineering community has become a source of much expectation and hope in the Muslim world. Distinguished by the quality of its achievements, and its access to the best in research and development facilities, it holds the promise of a better tomorrow for a world stuck seemingly forever in a ?developing? phase. The promise is yet to be fulfilled, but the potential is there, as is the challenge."

This certainly echoes the words of Dr. Abdus Salam, who was asked, "What happened to Islamic Science?" He replied "Nothing. Instead what we cultivated in Isfahan and Cordoba is now being cultivated in MIT, Caltech and at Imperial College, London. It?s just a geographical translation of place."


Back To Islam Awareness Homepage

Latest News about Islam and Muslims

Contact IslamAwareness@gmail.com for further information