Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 24 October 2019

Recalling the science of Islam’s Golden Age is not enough

To recapture the scientific achievements of the past, the Muslim world must remember how and why they happened, writes Yasmin Khan
Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

Much like the future, it is often said that history is written by the winners. Chronological frontiers are in perpetual states of flux as newer “gatekeepers” of the history of science are increasingly accommodating more inclusive analyses, with a view to rewriting the future.

Over the last decade, archaic narratives surrounding the Islamic medieval period have been re-nourished by a steady flurry of exhibitions, TV programmes and popular publications, to rekindle public awareness of the contribution to science and technology during the height of the Islamic civilisation.

Al Jazeera’s new TV series, Science in a Golden Age is the latest initiative to garner public attention. All six episodes are presented by Jim Al Khalili – a much celebrated physicist – who juxtaposes key past accomplishments in tandem with some of the pioneering research happening today in the fields of optics, astronomy, maths, engineering and chemistry and medicine.

Among the great scholars highlighted is Ibn Al-Haytham and his contribution to formulating the scientific method and principle of experimentation in the 11th century.

Ibn Al Haytham was the embodiment of logical thinking with a passion for exploring phenomena and recording empirical data to make new predictions.

Through openly discussing his findings, he was able to test and synthesise ideas – the bedrock of modern scientific tradition. His rational approach to knowledge led him to develop a groundbreaking theory of vision, through devising the camera obscura.

So, what else can we learn today from the Islamic Golden Age of science?

What stands out for me is the collaboration between different cultures and willingness to learn and expand on the work from previous civilisations.

Scholars felt free to investigate all topics whether it was instrumentally useful or just curiosity driven. No subject was out of bounds.

But the magnificent achievements of this legacy are in stark contrast to the status quo today. We are in danger of overindulging in past glories simply to flatter egos rather than matching our enthusiasm for Islamic heritage with sustainable initiatives that foster innovation in the Arab world today.

Currently, innovation is imported into the Arab world at a far higher volume than it is created from within – a conundrum that is notoriously exacerbated by the “brain drain” of talented Arabs to western countries.

We can boast as much as we like about how Baghdad, Damascus and Aleppo were the leading centres of scientific learning of their time, but just suppose Ibn Al Haytham and his peers from the House of Wisdom could be teleported to present day Baghdad – to what extent would they lament the current predicament facing the Arab world today?

Rather than dwell on what caused the decline, the more pressing question to address today is what enabled this Golden Age to take root in the first place?

The Arab world urgently needs to revive the spirit of rational inquiry that underpinned this legacy. This requires cultivating students capable of critical thinking and independent judgment to solve the problems of our modern age.

According to Ziauddin Sardar, the British-Pakistani scholar and author, it was the clamping down of ijtihad (independent reasoning) and intellectual freedom that triggered the deterioration of Islamic civilisation.

During a recent debate with Al Khalili in London, Sardar explained: “The problem with Islamic scholars now is that many adopt a narrow understanding of ilm [the Arabic word for knowledge] and fail to appreciate the concept of a holistic approach to knowledge.”

Sardar is on a mission to foster critical thinking among Muslims and has devoted much of his polymathic career to restimulating rational discourse within Islam. The Muslim Institute he has founded produces publications, events and fellowship programmes in the hope of cultivating a critical mass of Muslim freethinkers that can influence positive change in society to ensure the next generation of scientists can flourish.

Now, newly-erected museums in the Gulf are already carving out new opportunities to exhibit revisionist interpretations of heritage, proving themselves to be effective tools of cultural diplomacy. Similarly, science diplomacy is an increasingly instrumental part of strengthening soft power.

In the first programme, Al Khalili visits the Middle East’s first major international research centre under construction in Jordan, called Sesame, an aptly formed acronym that stands for Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East. This ambitious project emulates the cooperative model of Cern, in this case, bringing together scientists from Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, Palestine and Turkey – demonstrating the “no borders” principle when it comes to scientific enterprise.

While the Gulf has begun investing vast amounts of wealth in building new infrastructure for research labs and innovation hubs, more attention could be put on evolving pedagogy that is more conducive to producing innovative thinkers and establishing pathways to ensure their retention.

MuslimScience.com has just released a survey on science teaching at universities in the Muslim world. The report concludes that universities need to reinvent themselves to lead scientific reforms at a national level. A particularly astute recommendation, from the task force who assembled the report, is the urgent need to integrate the liberal arts into science degree curricula to develop “flexible minds and nimble thinking” that can tackle scientific challenges more creatively and imaginatively.

Thinking beyond, I would argue we need to support teachers to nurture the innate inquisitiveness of the youth right from their early years, much like Al Biruni, the 10th-century scientist, whose prolific manuscripts reveal he refused to rely on received wisdom from teachers but who thrived on questioning authority and learning to think independently. Can the Arab world once again instil this ethos?

The time is ripe for a fresh approach that is less nostalgic and harnesses the conditions that fostered innovation in the past to create a new template of possibilities. We need to refocus the spotlight onto emerging talent.

We ought to put greater emphasis on the holistic approach to knowledge embodied in the work of medieval polymaths. Belief in the oneness of God equipped them with a spiritual framework to appreciate the interconnectedness of our world and an appreciation of the unity of knowledge.

The combination of faith and reason produced a breed of scholars who embraced rationality rather than felt threatened by it. Notable sages spring to mind such as Omar Khayyam, renowned for his iconic poetry but who also excelled at astronomy and geometry that enabled spectacular feats of architecture. Embracing the interplay between science and the arts will be crucial to nurture the next wave of innovation in the Middle East.

Yasmin Khan is the producer of Sindbad Sci-Fi events

On Twitter: @Ya5minBL

Updated: November 7, 2015 04:00 AM