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Ancient instruments

Feature An exploration of the history and inventions on offer at the Sultans of Science exhibit at Canada's Ontario Science Centre.

There's a buzz in Toronto, Canada, where a couple of pithy and humorous posters are circulating the internet on YouTube, MySpace and Facebook. Created by the Ontario Science Center, the posters are being used to promote a state-of-the-art exhibition which opened last week. Sultans of Science: 1,000 Years of Knowledge Rediscovered, highlights the multicultural roots of modern science and technology, focusing on discoveries made by scholars during the golden age of the Islamic world. The publicity material plays on gaps in public knowledge, posing questions such as "Did you know that the first piloted flying device may have soared well before Leonardo da Vinci took flight in the 15th century?" Apparently, most Ontarians don't know that in the seventh century, on a hill near Cordoba, Spain, a scholar and inventor named Abbas bin Firnas is said to have harnessed himself to a feathered glider, briefly taking flight and amazing his spectators.

Lesley Lewis, the CEO of the Ontario Science Centre says: "This is an important exhibition for all our visitors. It provides us with a glimpse into the history of science in a part of the world that our visitors may not be aware was home to great scientific discoveries, and demonstrates the impact of these ideas, inventions and achievements." Developed by Cape Town and the Dubai-based MTE studios, this engaging and stimulating exhibition will show visitors how a great civilisation created prosperity across large areas of the world from Spain to China. Visitors are encouraged to touch and interact with many of the displays, play with the puzzles, build arches and design mosaics. Sultans of Science had its North American debut at the Liberty Science Centre in Newark, New Jersey. Its Canadian debut takes place in Ontario, where 352,500 Muslims, 61 per cent of Canada's total Muslim population, live.

Keeping these statistics in mind, the OSC proactively invited a group of influential Muslims on an advisory panel to help them spread the word on the exhibition and also to get valuable input and feedback. Dany Assaf, a partner with Bennet Jones LLP who is on the advisory panel, says: "It's important to me because it will remind us as Canadians how Muslims and non-Muslims alike value and share a common passion for science and development for the benefit of all by beautifully presenting the contribution that Islamic civilisation has made to the sciences." He's glad that the OSC has taken this initiative and his firm was one of the sponsors for the opening event.

The Ontario Science Centre had more than one million visitors in 2008, from which 240,000 were students. The centre has the largest museum-based education programme in Canada and offers over 40 curriculum-based school programmes. It took over a year of research and planning to bring the exhibition to Toronto, and the OSC is pulling out all the stops to make the show a hit. The attraction for youth and school kids is 650 square metres of exhibition space offering a mix of interactive audiovisual units, models and functioning reconstruction of devices that were built centuries ago, displayed in 10 thematic clusters with hands-on activities. The show includes displays on flight, medicine, optics, exploration, navigation, astronomy, engineering and art. Running concurrently with the exhibition, the newly refurbished planetarium at OSC is running shows on the theme of "astronomy in the ancient Islamic world".

Paul Harbridge, a Toronto-based author and illustrator also supports the show's aims to educate people about the culture of innovation and the contributions to global knowledge made by Islamic scholars. He says: "As a child I was fascinated by the stories of Marco Polo, sailors who navigated by fantastic navigation devices, the world of ancient Greece and the wondrous inventions of Leonardo da Vinci. As an adult, I continued to read about these contributors to western thought and culture. But when I started to learn about medieval Spain, suddenly a flood gate of truth was thrown open to me."

The OSC has made it clear that the exhibition is not religiously or politically motivated, but seeks to propel people towards knowledge. Sultans of Science takes people back to the time when knowledge was valued and innovation encouraged, leading to high levels of achievement in science and technology. For Qudsia Rahman, a 19-year-old student at York University, the show is about learning and knowledge. "It's awesome," she says. "I'm studying to become an optician and it's so exciting to learn that the 10th-century physician Al Haytham discovered how the eye works and understood that light is made up of distinct colours, explaining the rainbow effect. I believe I'll be able to actually conduct experiments in the optical laboratory using lenses, refraction, prism and a pinhole camera." Rahman, who is Muslim, is planning to bring her entire class.

For some community leaders, there is feeling that a project like this one will make a great difference to the image of Muslims in North America post September 11 and help to dispel stereotypes. Niaz Salimi of the Canadian Muslim Union says: "In this difficult time when the unforgivable actions of a very few with extreme ideas reflects over the entire Muslim population, it is crucial to help society understand the diversity of Muslim community. The progress and advancement of the world, as we know it, is the result of collaborations of the great minds from diverse backgrounds. By shedding light on the parts that have not been visited as often as they should, we celebrate the mosaic that we call human history."

To complement the exhibition, Journey to Mecca: In the footsteps of Ibn Batutta is showing at the Ontario Science Centre's IMAX theatre. The film, which premiered at the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi on Jan 7, had its US debut on Jan 9 in Dearborn, Michigan, at the Henry Ford Museum, which has booked it for a year. Several members of the Sultans of Science advisory panel reviewed the film in advance of its launch. Adbulhaq Ingar, the vice president of the Islamic Society of Toronto said of both the show and the film. "This provides everyone with an opportunity to understand the contributions of Muslims ? and helps Muslims admire and appreciate how our ancestors worked to make such contributions."

Raheel Raza is a diversity consultant and interfaith advocate based in Ontario.

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