Why Pandemic Should Encourage Muslim Societies To Break Inertia?

by  Mohamad Zubair-u-din

There is no denying the fact that Islam attaches great importance to knowledge and education. That education is the starting point of every human activity becomes evident from the fact that the first word of the first revealed verse of the Holy Quran was ‘Iqra’, that is read.

Kashmiri students in a group photograph at Kashmir Science Congress in January 2020

Several Prophetic traditions highlight the significance of acquiring knowledge and developing scientific temper. The earliest manifestation of the importance Islam attaches to knowledge was visible when the prisoners of war who fell to the Muslims during the battle of Badr were offered freedom in place of their teaching the children of Medina. Moreover, the Islamic approach as it emanates from the Glorious Quran is neither based on mythology nor superstition, but instead, it is based entirely on scientific principles, that is following the reality. The Creator has time again exhorted us to think over His bounties and unravel the mysteries of nature.

A peep into the Islamic past makes things abundantly clear. During the early period, the Arabs displayed a remarkable capacity of assimilating the scientific knowledge of the ancient civilizations they had overrun. The Abbasid Caliphs opened wide the gates of learning from all quarters and it was in pursuance of this zeal that Caliph Al-Mamun set up a House of Wisdom (Bait-ul-Hikmat) at Bagdad for translating into Arabic the learning from various civilizations-Greek, Byzantine, Egyptian, Iranian and Indian. And no wonder within a short period almost all the important scientific works of the various countries became available in Arabic. The overall impact of this endeavour was that Arabs reached a stage by the beginning of the tenth century when they made their contributions to the various sciences and the other branches of knowledge. Arab world became the leader in the field of science as its different branches like geometry, astronomy, optics, geography, chemistry, medicine, algebra, zoology, etc experienced phenomenal growth.

Moreover, the Muslim geographers advanced the knowledge of the world and the Arabs also helped to develop new devices for travelling across the open seas. And then the contribution of Muslims in enriching the fields of history and sociology besides furnishing interesting and useful details about the different lands they visited can hardly be erased from the pages of history. The mention of a few luminaries below in the different branches of learning will help to appreciate our lost glorious heritage;

  1. Al-Khwarizmi- A mathematician par excellence,
  2. Jabir ibn Hayan- Considered as the father of chemistry,
  3. Abu Rayhan al-Beruni- Considered as the first anthropologist and father of Indology, a great mathematician, astronomer and historian,
  4. Ibn-al-Nafis- A great sociologist, the first to describe the pulmonary circulation,
  5. Ibn Khaldun- Hailed as the forerunner of modern social sciences,
  6. Al-Masudi- Called as the ‘Herodotus of Arabs and pioneer of historical geography,
  7. Al- Kindi- Pioneer of environmental science,
  8. Muhamad-Al-Idrisi- A cartographer,
  9. Ahmed-ibn Sahl-al Balkhi- Pioneer of mental health,
  10. Ali-ibn Abbas al-Majusi- Pioneer of neuroanatomy and neurobiology,
  11. Avicena- Pioneer of neuropsychiatry,
  12. Ibn-Zuhr- Pioneer of neurology,
  13. Ibn-al-Haytham- a great physicist, considered as the father of optics,
  14. Al-Zahrawi- Hailed as the greatest medieval surgeon,
  15. Ibn-al-Shatir- an engineer and inventor.
Innovators in the IUST lab working on the Ruhdaar, the frugal ventilator that was born on April 22, 2020. Pic: IUST

It needs to be emphasized that the Muslim rulers were themselves zealous learners and extended patronage to the men of divergent intellectual tastes. Further, there was a remarkable degree of intellectual and personal freedom enjoyed by scholars and scientists which doesn’t find any parallel in the then Europe, mainly due to the rigidity of church.

Thenceforth, the pendulum shifted and the rich legacy in science and other subjects consolidated over the centuries experienced a beginning of the process of decline which continues unabated to date. Sadly this was also the beginning of a period of political reversals for the Muslim world. The irony is that Europe which at present has achieved leadership in virtually all fields of knowledge was awoken from the darkness of middle ages by their coming in contact with the Muslim world during and after the crusades. The European contacts with the Muslim world stimulated their intellectual, scientific, social, and geographical inquisitiveness. When the crusaders came back their intellectual horizons had broadened very much and they helped in ending the European segregation.

Needless to mention Aristotle’s scientific books, Arabic numerals, algebra, mariner’s compass, and paper reached western Europe through the courtesy of Arabs. It set the stage for the coming of renaissance, the age of enlightenment, and the efflorescence of the intellectual revolution. No wonder we witness stupendous progress was achieved and this continued till Europe virtually acquired the leadership of the world in all fields and every aspect of life. Europe was now in no mood to allow itself to relapse back in the age of ignorance and it ensured that no other country moved ahead of it in the field of knowledge, a pre-requisite to acquiring power. No wonder the majority of scientific marvels around us owe their origin to the west.

Mohammad Zubair Ud Din

It was perhaps this loss of glorious heritage that the great Muslim thinkers like Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Dr Sir Muhammad Iqbal, or for that matter Dr Ali Shariati lamented at. These and other like-minded thinkers, philosophers, and scholars have time and again exhorted upon the Muslim community to shun their differences and switch back to the knowledge if they wish the dignity, honour, and power in the present-day world. Once I went through a write-up on Dr Ali Shariati’s thought and I was wonderstruck how the west is working to ensure its hegemony. It became manifest after analyzing the said write-up on Dr Ali Shariati’s thought that the west is attempting to keep the top Muslim brains busy in expounding the stereotyped extreme religious doctrines, poetry, and others non-productive pursuits. Blacks have been assigned the jazz and dance while as the west is ensuring to keep its monopoly over scientific thinking and the resultant inventions!

There is no way out for us other than to take a leaf from our inspiring past and contribute our bit in different capacities if we want to bring ourselves from the morass of ignorance, backwardness, or for that matter slavery. The current covid-19 pandemic should spur the Muslim societies towards breaking the inertia accumulated over a long time. The poet of the east, Dr Allama Iqbal’s verse simplifies the whole statement;

Sabaq phir pad sadaqat ka, shujaat ka, adalat ka
liya jayega tujse imtehan duniya ke imamat ka. 

(Author is Assistant Professor of History, J&K Higher Education Department. Ideas expressed are personal)

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