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Professor A. R. Momin

Islam and the globalization of science and technology

A great deal of hype and euphoria surrounds the process of globalization, which is hailed as the most distinctive feature of the present era. Undoubtedly, the scale, magnitude and reach of the processes subsumed under globalization are unprecedented in the annals of human history. However, it will not be correct to regard globalization as an altogether new phenomenon. In the past, vast empires, large-scale conquests, massive migrations of people, and the diffusion of ideas and beliefs as well as science and technology over large territories exhibited several features of globalization.

A movement for the globalization of science and philosophy was set in motion in the Islamic world during the medieval period. This movement was marked by extensive translations of scientific and philosophical works from Greece, India, Persia and Egypt, a synthesis of the researches of Muslim scientists and those of other lands, the establishment of scientific institutions, the employment of Arabic as the lingua franca of scientific research, translation and communication, and the creation of a community of scientists and translators from different religious, ethnic and religious backgrounds. Roger Bacon acknowledged that almost all of Aristotle's works were available only in Arabic translations, with only a small percentage having been translated into Latin. He asserted that without Arabic, Greek knowledge would have never reached the Europeans. Montgomery Watt has remarked that no people in the world translated from foreign languages as much as Muslims. George Sarton, the celebrated historian of science, has observed that, prior to the 15th century, almost all the works of classical writers were available only in Arabic.

Scientific institutions, such as observatories, scientific academies, medical colleges, libraries and hospitals, which were established by Muslim rulers and members of the nobility and supported through waqf endowments, played a highly important role in the globalization of science. The most remarkable scientific institution in the early centuries of the Islamic era was Bayt al-Hikmah founded by Caliph Al-Mamun in Baghdad in the early decades of the 9th century. It was in this institution that nearly the whole corpus of scientific and philosophical literature from Greece, Persia and India was rendered into Arabic.

The translators of scientific and philosophical works included not only Muslims but also Jews, Christians, Sabaeans, Magians and Hindus. One of the most prolific translators was Hunayn ibn Ishaq or Johannitus (d. 877), who was a Syrian Christian. It is significant to note that the seven volumes of Galen's Anatomy are extant only in the form of its Arabic translation by Hunayn ibn Ishaq. Ibn Maymun or Maimonides (d. 1204), a brilliant scientist and translator, was a Spanish rabbi. Other important translators were Thabit ibn Qurra (d. 901), who was a Magian, Abu Bishr Matta (d. 940) and Qusta ibn Luqa (d. 912), both Christians, and Ali ibn Abbas al-Majusi (d. 994), a Magian.

The scientific legacy of Islamic civilization greatly contributed to the European Renaissance. (See J. R. Hayes: The Genius of Arab Civilization: Source of Renaissance. Cambridge, Mass, 1983).

In his recent book Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (Penguin 2006), Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has paid handsome tributes to the role of Islamic civilization in the globalization of science and technology. To quote him:

Muslim engineers were responsible for the development and use of the technology of irrigation in the form of acequias in Spain, drawing on the innovations they had introduced earlier in the dry lands in the Middle East. This allowed, more than a thousand years ago, the cultivation of crops, fruits and vegetables, and the pasturing of animals on what had earlier been completely dry European land. Indeed, Muslim technologists were in charge of this admirable technical job over many centuries.

Furthermore, Muslim mathematicians and scientists had a significant role in the globalization of technical knowledge through the movement of ideas across the Old World. For example, the decimal system and some early results in trigonometry went from India to Europe in the early years of the second millennium, transmitted through the works of Arab and Iranian mathematicians. Also, the Latin versions of the mathematical results of Indian mathematicians Aryabhata, Varahmihira and Brahmagupta, from their Sanskrit treatises produced between the fifth and seventh centuries appeared in Europe through two distinct steps, going first from Sanskrit to Arabic and then to Latin. As leaders of innovative thought in that period in history, Muslim intellectuals were among the most committed globalizers of science and mathematics. The religion of the people involved, whether Muslim or Hindu or Christian, made little difference to the scholarly commitments of these Muslim leaders of mathematics or science.

Similarly, many of the Western classics, particularly from ancient Greece, survived only through their Arabic translations, to be retranslated, mostly into Latin, in the early centuries of the second millennium, preceding the European Renaissance. The Arabic translations were originally made not, obviously, for preservation, but for contemporary use in the Arabic-speaking world-a world of some considerable expanse at the turn of the first millennium. (pp. 69-70, emphasis added)

Islam's multicultural legacy in Spain

The contribution of Islamic civilization to the promotion and advancement of knowledge, especially through an innovative amalgamation and creative synthesis of learning and science drawn from different sources, the creation of an environment of tolerance and accommodation, and to the onward march of human civilization-through the harvesting of nature's resources, science and medicine, engineering and technology, arts and crafts, architecture-constitutes one of the most illuminating chapters in human history. It is gratifying to note that there is now a growing recognition and appreciation of Islam's monumental role in the enrichment of human civilization.

The Al-Hamra palace at Granada is one of the most splendid architectural monuments of Muslim Spain

In a speech given on September 26, 2001, Carly Fiorina, president of Hewlett Packard, observed:

When other nations were afraid of ideas, this civilization (of Islam) thrived on them, and kept them alive. When censors threatened to wipe out knowledge from past civilizations, this civilization kept the knowledge alive, and passed it on to others…..Although we are often unaware of our indebtedness to this civilization, its gifts are very much a part of our heritage. The technology industry would not exist without the contributions of Arab mathematicians. Leaders like (the Ottoman Emperor) Sulayman the Magnificent contributed to our notions of tolerance and civic leadership. And perhaps we can learn a lesson from his example: it was leadership based on meritocracy, not inheritance. It was leadership that harvested the full capabilities of a very diverse population-that included Christian, Islamic and Jewish traditions.

One may add that the inspiration for these lofty ideals was provided by the teachings of the Holy Quran and the precepts of Prophet Muhammad. The Quran repeatedly urges Muslims to closely observe natural phenomena and to ponder over the mysteries of the universe and of the human psyche. It emphasizes the pursuit of knowledge as the key to all-round well-being and development. The Prophet regarded the acquisition of knowledge and learning as an obligation on every believer. He declared that "wisdom is (like) the lost animal of a Muslim; he should catch hold of it wherever he finds it." He exhorted his followers to carry the torch of knowledge and enlightenment far and wide, and warned against concealing or withholding it. Islam opened the portals of knowledge to one and all, men and women, rich and poor, king and slave. This refreshingly open, dynamic and egalitarian approach to knowledge brought about far-reaching and revolutionary consequences not only for Muslims but also for human civilization as a whole.

Between the fifth and fifteenth centuries, when Europe was enveloped in the Dark Ages, the Iberian peninsula under Muslim rule witnessed a spectacular efflorescence of science and medicine, philosophy and literature, technology and engineering, art and architecture and, above all, of tolerance and multiculturalism where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived and worked together in unimaginable harmony. Samuel ha-Nagid, a Jewish rabbi, was appointed the vizier of the kingdom of Cordoba. He led his largely Muslim soldiers into battle, with prayers on his lips for the victory of his beloved land.

Amartya Sen, in his recent books Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (Penguin 2006) and The Argumentative Indian (Penguin 2005), has written that when Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher was forced to emigrate from an intolerant Europe in the 12th century, he found a tolerant refuge in the Arab world. His host, who gave him an honoured and influential position in his court in Cairo, was none other than Emperor Saladin (Identity and Violence, p. 66; The Argumentative Indian, p. 286). Sen quotes a contemporary writer Maria Rosa Menocal who says in her recent book The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance (New York: Little Brown 2002) that by the 10th century, the achievement of Cordoba in Muslim-rule Spain in being "as serious a contender as Baghdad, perhaps more so, for the title of most civilized place on earth" was due to the constructive influence of the joint work of Caliph Abd al-Rahman III and his Jewish vizier Hasdai ibn Shaprut. Menocal argues that the position of Jews after the Muslim conquest "was in every respect an improvement, as they went from persecuted to protected minority" (quoted in Identity and Violence, p. 66).

It may be added that during the Reconquista (or Reconquest) the Spanish Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand expelled Muslims, Jews, and gypsies from Spain in 1492. Large numbers of Jews took shelter in Muslim lands. In Turkey they were received with open arms by the Mayor of Istanbul. It is significant to note that Ladino, a dialect spoken by the Spanish Jews, survived only in the eastern Mediterranean lands which were part of the Ottoman Empire.

Museo Vivo de Al-Andalus, a unique museum established by the distinguished Muslim scholar and statesman Roger Garaudy in Cordoba, brings out the cultural and intellectual legacy of Muslim Spain through modern audio-visual techniques.

Even today, Spanish tradition cannot be understood without the Islamic legacy and cultural heritage. Spanish language is replete with thousands of words of Arabic origin. Most of the family names as well as names of places and regions in Spain betray their Arabic origins. The regional division of Spain into 17 communities points to the continuing legacy of the Muslim period.

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