Saturday, 28 February 2015

Debating Muslim Contribution to Sciences

Let Muslim scholars write more universal histories, like Ibn Khaldun attempted, without anxiety to show Islam in the background or foreground.
Many spots on the moon are named after Muslim scientists. Over 500 stars have names originally Arabic as have Algebra, Chemistry and many instruments we routinely use. Muslims made homes for old and abandoned animals and used money from Awqaf to treat and feed them. Even cats whom we often despise had separate buildings. Muslim pioneered bird hatcheries. Muslims wrote over hundred books on horses alone. Muslims invented gunpowder, compass, many techniques in bee keeping, modern floriculture and made countless discoveries in sciences from gravitation to mechanism of vision. Discussing hundreds of such interesting things that most of us don’t know, and succeeding in further convincing (if someone doubted) us about our current decay and past glory, but only tangentially touching on deeper reasons, metaphysical or philosophical that made such glory possible and writing off significance of Greek or other influences that have been matter of contention for theological camp always, Qurooni Wusta kae Musalmanu kae Sainysi Karname (Contribution of Medieval Muslims to Science) is a wonderful read that has been published again after new additions.

How many book have been written by Kashmiris on religion or its history that we can assert with full confidence that they will continue to be read, at least for some time and are currently respectfully taken by scholarship in the given discipline? Perhaps we can count them on fingers. And Dr Ghulam Qadir Lone’s works, especially one on Sufism and current one under discussion taken, one can safely assert belong to this category. Although it is more a compilation than an original work but as a compilation it succeeds quite well to lucidly summarize and briefly review some important works in the history of the subject. The book gives an overview of Muslim contribution to sciences and important branches of humanities, mentioning and sometimes summarizing great number of original sources in a lively style. It narrates number of anecdotes showing great culture of learning, Muslims once had. Almost every reader would find something of interest in it though its main subject is now very well known and somewhat hackneyed, considering Mushtaq A Yusufi’s remark that if one tenth of the money and time spent on rehearsing “Musalamanoo kae science per ahsanaat” were devoted to teaching them sciences, “tou musalmanoo per bada ahsaan hoga.” The book avoids fashionable platitudes of popular preachers that read every new scientific discovery in the Quran and forget similar readings made regarding other scriptures and difficulties in literal defense of literal meaning of many so-called science related verses. The book vividly brings the glory of Muslims – it will take pages to just enumerate names of individual contributors and their contribution to almost every discipline including historiography, geography, mineralogy, botany, zoology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, mathematics, medicine and philosophy (to all of which separate chapters have been devoted). It does so in a charming free flowing prose).
Ironies in current Muslim attitude that proudly claim great contributions of Muslims to sciences include suspicion of philosophy and methodological naturalism of modern science. Dr Lone does well by including a chapter on philosophy as well. Muslim philosophers who were also scientists didn’t reject Greeks as pagans or aliens; they appropriated their work and moved ahead. We still keep debating harm done by Greeks to Islam while celebrate great scientist-philosophers who drew inspiration from Greeks.

The book promotes the current discourse that identifies pursuit of ilm with pursiuit of various sciences and takes a very literal interpretation of first revealed verses that mention God taught ilm by qalm (the fact that predominantly oral culture characterized most of great civilizations contests this simplistic reading ) to defend this position. The book repeats old charges against the West for plagiarism and hiding Muslim influence or contribution despite the fact that for decades the charges have been acknowledged and modern Western scholarship has been attempting to rewrite history. In fact a greater scandal has been to write off China which spearheaded march of civilization by inventing more than 70% of most used inventions in the modern world.

The book displays two interesting points. It is Western scholarship that is appropriated to highlight contribution of Muslims to various sciences and humanities. Many important books are missing. It leaves much of serious contemporary debate on metaphysical background and current implications of Islamic sciences and doesn’t note important contributors to the debate of situating development of sciences in larger framework. Bibliography mentions only secondary sources on Muslim philosophers except Ghazzali. Neither Nasr, nor Sardar, nor such authors as Osman Bakr, Muzaffar Iqbal or Hoodbuoy on history of Muslim contribution to sciences have been consulted. Neither postmodern nor Marxist historians of science and newer accounts of alternative sciences get a mention.

The publisher has rightly and gently corrected the author’s simplistic linking of modern idea of evolution to Muslim rendering of it in middle age. The author has read alchemy and astrology practiced by Muslims along the dismissive literalist lines of Orientalists, a reading challenged by traditionalist scholars like Nasr. Great divide between traditional Islamic and modern sciences on background metaphysical if not methodological grounds, has not been touched.

The book doesn’t seriously probe why Muslim contribution dwindled after middle ages and it seeks to blame colonialism and Muslim modernists and modernist rulers for failure of revival of the legacy thus conveniently forgetting that it is opposition to philosophy, to sciences from ultraconservative literalist mindset that has also its share of guilt for this state of affairs. The author is not ready to grant the possibility that yesterday it was India or China or Arab or Muslim lands that were leading the world in sciences and today it is the West and we identify certain common elements in collective character of nations that better promote cause of knowledge and needn’t connect it to any particular religion or culture. I wonder why we keep mourning Muslim decadence forgetting the possibility that the best of Islamic values have already penetrated modern Western institutions, and East-West or Islam-West binary is in many respects now obsolete way of seeing things as Hamid Dabashi has pointed out. I personally feel that the best in the modern world is collective heritage of humanity as is the best that was produced in the Islamic world to be owned as Islamic. I recommend reading Will Durant’s first volume Our Oriental Heritage of his monumental voluminous Story of Civilization to better place in perspective the question of relative contribution of various civilizations to advancement of sciences. Let Muslim scholars write more universal histories that our forefathers like Ibn Khaldun attempted without anxiety to show Islam in the background or foreground. If Islam promotes knowledge culture and modern world has largely appropriated it why not celebrate the Western minds as our own in the sense that Islam’s universalist claim is that it constitutes The Religion, the religion from Adam onwards rather than a particular religion that emerged from Arabia. I wish Muslim scholars write about Indian and Chinese contributions to sciences, to philosophy and religion the way Max Muller and Joseph Needham wrote and that will be in line with the approach great Muslim scientists and philosophers adopted in the middle ages. (Al-Farabi, for instance, wrote The Virtuous City on the pattern of Plato’s The Republic) Muslim youth are largely ignorant of not only Islamic past but of traditional past in general that grounds Islamic world. It is rightly impressed by the achievements of the West in last few centuries and we should have enough catholicity in outlook to celebrate them as well.

We need more knowledge, than pride over knowledge of ancestors and this can come by both cultivating humility to learn from world cultures, from Harvards and Oxfords that are incarnations of erstwhile great Muslim seats of learning that are themselves incarnations of great Greek or Chinese seats of learning. If we believe “ Wisdom is a believer’s lost treasure” as Dr Lone reminds us of the prophetic tradition, I see no reason for only focusing on Muslim history of contributions to sciences while ignoring both its background, Greek and Oriental wisdom, or its continuity, in the form of Wisdom of the (modern) West. We can’t carry ID of our great grandfathers in our pockets if it is our ID that is required to be presented. However, as Dr Lone emphasizes, we better know our forefathers to fashion our new identity. And that task – that our author doesn’t take up for consideration – will involve engaging with great modern thinkers.

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