Islam, science & the West
Oct 4: New York City and
vicinity have just witnessed two facets of civilisation: one low-class and, the
other, high-class. The president of Columbia University in New York City
vilified and abused his invited guest, Iran President Ahmedinejad, at an
on-campus forum where, among other things, parallels were drawn with Adolf
Hitler. But when it mattered during the 1930s, envoys from Nazi Germany were
received with full courtesies and protocol by then Columbia University
President, Nicholas Murray Butler. At the same time, in Jersey City, near the
island of Manhattan, a major exhibit saluting Islam's scientific contributions
to global civilisation is being held.
The exhibit is housed at the Liberty
Science Centre, in Jersey City, New Jersey. Jersey City is near the island of
Manhattan and is part of the New York metropolitan area. From the Liberty
Science Centre, there is a clear view of the skyline of New York City, including
the iconic Statue of Liberty and the empty space where the Twin Towers once
The location, site and timing of the exhibit are continuing reminders
of the need to build bridges, as well as cross bridges, between the Muslim East
and the Christian West. This travelling exhibit – the first time ever in the
United States – has been launched on the scientific contributions of Islam to
global civilisation. The exhibit is breath-taking in its scope and content, and
encompasses a wide range of the Muslim imprint on scientific inventions and
discoveries, including math, medicine, optical science, naval exploration,
astronomy, architecture, flight, applied hydrology, and the world's first-class
think-tank, The House of Wisdom, founded in Baghdad in the 9th century.
exhibit highlights how Abbas Ibn Firnas, in 9th century Islamic Spain, was the
first person to build and pilot a flying device (a hang-glider) in 880 AD. While
most of Europe persisted in thinking that the world was flat, Muslim scientists
devised 3-dimensional models of the Earth surrounded by stars and planets.
Replicas of sophisticated surgical instruments, resembling those of modern
physicians but belonging to Ibn Nafis, a 13th century Muslim surgeon, are on
display. A 10th century Muslim physician, Al Haytham, invented the pinhole
camera and studied eye disease. The exhibit also includes a display of a
working, 4-foot tall recreation of the Elephant Clock, dating from 1206,
invented by Mesopotamian engineer Al-Jazari, who also invented clever Wudu
machines that dispensed water at specified intervals for hand-washing.
exhibit is attracting enormous interest and is appealing to adults and children
alike. It is quite a hit with the American school children. In a heated
environment of prejudice and propaganda, it is useful in counterbalancing false
perceptions and misleading stereotypes.
The presence of the exhibit and the
positive response to it shows that there is a significant constituency among the
American public that seeks to engage and embrace the heritage of the Muslim past
that has so vastly enriched global civilisation. This is note-worthy, especially
so, when juxtaposed against the relentless efforts of vested quarters to poison
9/11 has had many a negative fallout. But one key positive element
has been an upsurge in interest and curiosity about Islam. This has given space
and opportunity to Muslims to present the other side of the picture. Many
Americans are now beginning to become increasingly conscious of the Muslim
world, and are realising that the learning of Arabic language and Islamic
studies are somehow connected with American well being.
But this striving for
greater understanding needs to be met and buttressed with imagination and
innovation by Muslims in America. Being absorbed in economic pursuits with
little civic engagement with mainstream American society is no longer a tenable
option. The visible legacy of this approach has left, in effect, Muslims with
zero national presence and, yet, an enduring negative national image.
West does not adequately acknowledge its debt to Islam, the Muslims, too, are
not sufficiently cognisant of their own history and heritage and, thus, are
mentally ill-equipped to present their case on the world stage, thereby leaving
ample space for others to fill with disinformation and disfigurement.
is a compelling need to connect and communicate effectively. Incapacity to
engage is only cementing isolation and empowering those who wish to paint a dark
and deceptive picture. The Muslims have the reasons and resources to rectify the
Muslim governing elite's have been constantly told to do
more on the 'war on terror'. Where they need to do more is to enlighten
themselves and others in the Battle of Ideas. Sir Winston Churchill had once
warned "An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last."
MOWAHID HUSSAIN SHAH - The Nation