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For the Revival of a Golden Age

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What happened to the Islamic world's scientific advances?

As prominent scientist and Nobel laureate, the late Abdus Salam, noted over 20 years ago that, "of all civilizations on this planet, science is weakest in the lands of Islam. The dangers of this weakness cannot be over-emphasized since the honorable survival of a society depends directly on its science and technology in the condition of the present age."

Indeed, scientific and technological development has been credited with being the single most important factor in the accumulation of intellectual wealth in the Western world.

Towards the end of the 20th century, there has been a general awakening amongst developing countries to catch up with the progress the West has made, both scientifically and intellectually speaking; however, as records show, the Muslim world (with a few exceptions as
later mentioned) has continued to lag behind. Most governments have failed to employ the right policies and plans for the creation of a climate for innovation and scientific inquiry.

Data from the Science Citation Index reveals that the total contribution of 46 predominantly Muslim countries to the world of science literature between 1990 and 1994 was a meager 1.17 per cent of the total world output, as compared to 1.48 percent for Spain alone. The number of scientific researchers in the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) is also low, with an average of 500 researchers per million, compared to the average of over 5,000 per million people in countries like Finland.

As many point out, this scientific, intellectual and technological stagnation will have far-reaching socio-political and socio economic effects.

Western observers and orientalists often associate this trend today to Islam – but is it really?

From the 10th to the 13th century, Muslims occupied a predominant leadership role in scientific and technological innovation. In the ninth century, Baghdad was the scene of intense intellectual activity, with a number of scientists working at the Baitul Hikma – their version of a research institution – producing works written on mathematics, astronomy, physics and medicine.

Scholars of these eras were the first to make use of the "zero" (borrowed from Indian sources), founded modern Algebra, and made monumental advancements in the field of medicine. Ibn Sina's (Avicenna) text, The Canon of Medicine, was used as a text in Europe centuries later.

The Muslim world had a number of impressive technological achievements, including the development of "Lateen Sail" which allowed building of larger ships, the use of a tidal mill, the construction and innovation of water mills, and hydraulic systems. Achievements such as these catapulted themselves way ahead of the West at the time. Al-Jazari's Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices is hailed as the most remarkable engineering document from Pre-Renaissance times.

One of the most important Qur'anic commands is for individuals to seek knowledge and read nature for signs of Allah. Almost one-eighth – 750 verses – of the Book exhort believers to study nature, to reflect, to listen, or to observe to attain the level of Kamal.

Our Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) has told us to go in search of knowledge even if it takes us as far away as China (China – or Cathay then – was a scientific hub at the time). The attainment of knowledge has been hailed by the Prophet and Imam's (peace be upon them) as the only worldly attainment that one can take to the afterlife, one that can tip the balance in going to heaven or hell.

Advancements in the fields of not just science and technology, but also in literature, humanities, philosophy, language, economics, and others have been emphasized in Islam – so much so that one of the signs of a true believer is that he is always in quest of knowledge.

Drawing from all this, it can safely be said that the stagnation in scientific and technological developments cannot be linked to Islam. As Sir Syed Ahmed Khan once said, "Muslims have in the Qur'an the source of a rational religion attuned to modern man's scientific interests."

Capitalizing on this idea is not the entire Muslim world, but only one or two countries. The world witnessed an awakening on the part of Malaysia towards the end of the 20th century. The country has made strides in shaking up its policies and investing in its educational system.

Another shining example, and more recent (even unexpected by some), is Iran. The country's scientific output has grown 11 times faster than the world average, and that's faster than any other country. Its scientific output rose 18-fold between 1996 and 2008, from 736 published papers to 13,238.

In August 2009, Iran announced a "comprehensive plan for science" focused on higher education and stronger links between industry and academia. The establishment of a 2.5 million USD centre for nanotechnology research is one of the products of this plan. Other commitments include boosting R&D investment to four percent of GDP (0.59 percent of GDP in 2006), and increasing education to seven percent of GDP by 2030. In October of 2010, Iran started mass-producing ocular bio implants, breaking the monopoly the US once held.

It has been intriguing to watch the fruits of this plan so early on. It reaffirms the belief that if given the chance, the Muslim world can utilize its talent and capacity for scientific advancements that are usually ascribed to the West.

The Muslims world needs to invest more in its youth and education sector. An environment in which asking, "Why?" and, "How?" is encouraged rather than repressed. What also needs to take place is a concerted effort on parts of governments to provide incentives for retaining the talent the country produces. Institutions must be created and reinforced that give our future (and current) scientists and researchers the very tools they can employ to take the Muslim world from strength to strength.

In addition, the Muslim world must work hand-in-hand and reach beyond borders if it is to advance and revive the Golden Age we all look back at yearningly. It is through cooperation, not only between Muslim countries but also on a global level, that we will truly be catapulted into the 21st century and become front players in the third industrial revolution – as many term it.

Author of this article: Kaneez Fatima
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