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


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


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:


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."


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