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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 stood.

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.

The 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.

The 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 the pond.

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.

If the 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.

There 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 existing imbalance.

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

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