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In the first of the Muslim Heritage Interview Series, Professor Salim T. S. Al-Hassani, the Chairman of the Board of the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (FSTC), talks of the beginning of his interest in Muslim Heritage, after a brilliant career as a Professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Manchester. He details the context of the foundation of FSTC, the launch of its project, the outreach and meaning of ‘1001 Invention' Global Initiative, and the impact it had in terms of attracting attention of the public to the contributions of the Islamic civilisation to modern day science and society.
We are happy to have Professor Salim Al-Hassai in this first interview. Professor Al-Hassani is Emeritus Professor at The University of Manchester and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (FSTC), based in Manchester. He became a Professor of High Energy Rate Engineering at UMIST (the University of Manchester Institute of Science & Technology) in 1991. He was educated at the University of Manchester, obtaining a 1st class BSc (Hons) degree in mechanical engineering in 1965, an MSc in 1967 and a PhD in 1969. He has worked in the UK industry and held university posts in the UK and overseas. He has been an expert witness on major explosion accidents and disasters. He has been awarded numerous national and international research grants and published over 200 papers in books and international journals. His side interest in the History of Science and Technology earned him a worldwide reputation. He is honorary Chairman of The Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation, Editor in Chief of www.MuslimHeritage.com and editor of the famous book 1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World published by FSTC in 2006. So thank you Professor for being with us and for opening the series of interviews.
How did the 1001 Inventions Exhibition initiative initially come about?
One wonders why it is called 1001 Inventions Exhibition and not 1000 or 999. This word is a well established antithesis of a very well established perception of people about Muslims, that is whenever you ask people what do you know about Arabs and Muslims, they go back in their memories when they were kids and they were taught the 1001 Nights which refer to Sinbad the sailor, Ali Baba and the forty thieves, the flying carpet and the occasional association with belly dancing. This is something well ingrained in the memory bank of a lot of people and hence to bring the word invention will hopefully be a shock to shake that perception: that Muslims have contributed enormously to the well-being of modern society. This exhibition is not just 1001 inventions and that’s it, but it states that it covers the Muslim heritage in our world; which means “about things that are still happening today”. In other words, although much of the glorious inventions have happened hundreds of years ago, an enormous number of those inventions are still with us in our homes, hospitals, schools, universities, markets, towns; and that concerns the earth that we refer to when we look at the subject of geography and even in the skies when we look at the stars and the names of craters on the moon and so on. The exhibition therefore refers to all those zones. If we were to carry out an audit on the items we see at home, for example, we find Muslim inventions and numerous items brought to us by Muslims. Take the spectacles or glasses we use to improve our vision, it was a Muslim invention. The idea of fitted carpets came to us from Muslim Spain (the Andalus); drinking a cup of coffee must remind us of its Muslim origin, the fountain pen was invented in Egypt. More significant also are the inventions of modern soap, shampoo, tooth brush. Again Muslims seem to rear their heads in our garden when you look at the origins of the many flowers we imported, like Tulips and the English Rose. Well, even music in the form of the musical scales and instruments like the lute, etc.
So these are the sorts of things that the exhibition is trying to bring about, and of course one can go on and do the same audit of what we have in schools today in maths, geography, trigonometry, algebra, physics and biology. Whatever the subject, you will find that they are connected with an enormous amount of innovation and invention originating in other cultures.
How did it all start?
Well, there are people like myself who have been living here for more than fifty years. I’ve been trying to live as a Muslim and have been very successful thanks to God. I have been well treated and became distinguished in my profession as a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Manchester, Institute of Science & Technology (UMIST). I have had various prizes and published hundreds of papers and have taught numerous PhD students and MSC students. I have also joined a number of reputable institutions, learned and professional.
In light of this, one day I was confronted by Professor Donald Cardwell, a colleague who founded the first department for the history of science and technology in the UK and also the founder of the Museum for Science and Industry. He was a distinguished authority in the history of science and industry. He said to me: “You are a well established professor and have done very well in your career, but I feel you can have an even more inspiring role to yourself. From my perspective there is about a thousand years missing in the history of science, technology and industry. Now this thousand years is missing because we refer to this period as the “dark ages”. We don’t know much about what happened and all that we do know is that there was a conflict between the church and anyone who expressed any liberal or scientific thought. There were long periods of plague and so history took a dive after the Greek and Roman empires and then Europe suddenly rose at a time which we call the Renaissance. The gap in history is about a thousand years”.
So he stated that a lot has been written on this subject, and referring to it as the “dark ages” was not the correct name. Although it might have been dark in some parts of Europe, but it was glorious and sunny in places like Spain, south Italy and the Muslim world in general. He said this is the Apogee of Muslim Civilisation.
That confrontation was a big challenge to me. You see, I did not like the subject of history at all and this is why I went into science and engineering. The way I was taught history when I was in Baghdad was based on the lives of Kings, Caliphs and people who were in political conflict and mostly did not die natural death. It is taught as political history, with tribes also conflicting with one another. There was nothing about history of civilisation or about the lives of people.
Encouraged by his challenge, I felt I had to do something about it and began to collect some information from here and there. When I presented a short seminar on this subject, I found myself like a one-eyed man amongst the blind. I tried it with university professors, and again confirmed the views of Professor Cardwell; there existed indeed an amnesia in the minds of the public. He arranged for me to speak at the Literary and Philosophical Society, which is the highest learned body in Manchester, like the Royal Society in London. Again, I was very surprised that the same amnesia prevailed. I was well appreciated as if I was a scholar in the subject of History of Science and Technology. In fact I thought that 40 years in university teaching and researching engineering did not quite get me that level of appreciation. When I presented my information to younger people, especially young Muslims, my God, they were really enthralled. They realised that there are great inventors and people in Muslim history who could become role models to their search for identity.
I thought this is something very good, met with some of my colleagues and decided to form the Foundation for Science Technology and Civilisation. The first thing we did was, rather than just go out lecture tours, we decided to set up a website and we called it www.MuslimHeritage.com. As soon as we set that up, it was like fire in dry wood. The number of page views per day rocketed sky high. Very shortly it reached between 50,000 to a 60,000 per day. This is really something incredible. An eye opener was an incident after a lecture I gave at the city of Watford in the north of London. The Lady Mayor was the hostess of the event organised by a Workers Union, whose attendance were predominantly non-Muslims. After the end of my presentation, she stood up and said: “I am very, very angry.”
For a moment, I thought I must have said something seriously wrong. Then, she continued: “I am angry because of two things. One is that why is it that Muslims don’t talk to us in this language? They only talk to us about religion and about politics. And we are diametrically opposite to each other in these. Why don’t they talk to us about the Islamic roots of the many inventions that we enjoy in our homes, schools, hospitals, markets, etc? This language would draw us closer and remove the negative perceptions and stereotypes from our minds. I am also angry because I do not see any such information in our national curriculum so that our future generation know about it.”
Those two questions had really fired me up and also a lot of other people. Consequently, this had changed the direction of my interest, from being an academic exercise, where I enjoyed being listened to, into engaging in a noble mission that will create social cohesion and hopefully peace in the world.
There were enormous requests from website visitors for educational products in the form of books, posters, exhibitions, etc. We decided to use an eye catching but a relevant name for our products. After a number of brain-storming sessions, we chose 1001 Inventions. This is in contrast to the stereotype story of 1001 nights that people in the West associate with Muslims, bringing Sinbad, Ali Baba and the forty thieves, Aladdin and the magic lamp, the flying carpet and of course belly dancing Harem! To associate Muslims with inventions, innovations and knowledge is a striking prospect.
After 9/11, the British Government decided to support the 1001 Inventions exhibition. When we launched it in Manchester, we had enormous presence from the British Government, and we had also the Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Countries, and we had ministers from all over Europe such as the head of youth and sport ministries in the Council of Europe. It was really very well received. It stayed for three months in Manchester where it was visited by some 90,000 people. People insisted that it should be staged again in Manchester and it stayed for another three months. Then it went to Cardiff, Birmingham, Glasgow, London, etc. This theme resonates with the social and political scene in the UK, Europe and the rest of the world. This actually presents the history of Europe; or I should say the missing history of Europe. An amnesia of one thousand years in the European mind. Names like Aristotle and Newton are household names but people do not know of any great scientists or engineers between the Greeks and the Renaissance. The gap is called the Dark Ages or the medieval period, meaning the period between two civilisations, which automatically negates the existence of the Muslim Civilisation. This is why non-Muslims want this gap to be truthfully filled. It is interesting to note that most of those working with us on this campaign are non-Muslims.
Muslim inventions and philosophy had greatly influenced the European Renaissance. Had it not been for the great Muslim scholar Ibn Rushd (Averroes), had he not opened up the relationship between logic and faith, people would still have been living under the intellectual suppression of the Vatican church. This scholar introduced this idea, which when taken by people hostile to the church gave birth to the notion of secularism. Later I will touch upon how coffee houses in London and Paris gave birth to liberalism. The idea of liberalism originating from rationalism and logic came from Ibn Rushd, because he introduced the concept of harmony between logic, philosophy and faith. As an established Muslim theologian and judge, he said you can’t exclude rationality from faith, belief has to make sense. Of course none of the people of the Renaissance could dare to speak scientifically and at the same time say that they got their ideas from Muslims. They would have been burnt at the stake, as was common in those days. So you find that many of the new brilliant ideas that came, for instance the new theory in astronomy that the Earth was not the centre of the world, which Copernicus propounded, were based on mathematical models proposed by previous Muslim scholars such as Ibn Al-Shatir. But of course we cannot blame Copernicus for not admitting he knew the work of Ibn al-Shatir, because he would have been opposed to, not only for his heretical idea but more for it being a Muslim one in origin.
Do you feel that there is a dearth of knowledge about this history not only amongst non- Muslims but also Muslims are ignorant about their own heritage?
I have had quite a lot of contact with Muslims and Muslim youth for many years. I am afraid that Muslims have unbalanced knowledge about their own heritage. They know much about part of the history which I did not quite like. They are taught in the same way I had been taught as young man. They know about the political aspects of Muslim civilisation. They know about dynasties, the Umayyad, the Abbasids and the Ottomans, they know about wars, the crusades and about the Mongols. That makes people completely biased in their attitudes and some people even give up reading history like I did at one stage. However, very few of them know about the real story of Muslim civilisation and especially about the story of people like me and you today. People like me and you who get on with their lives, make a living and try to be good to society, establish institutions, write books, produce useful and good works in industry, agriculture and medicine. Unfortunately, we find little written about them. The problem is that most of this knowledge is available in manuscripts and archives of libraries. When we say it is missing, we mean missing from the curriculum, missing from the media, it is missing from the day to day conversation.
This is the purpose for which we published the 1001 Inventions book, the purpose of developing the website www.MuslimHeritage.com and the website www.1001invention.com, the purpose of the 1001 Inventions exhibition, the purpose of the teacher’s pack and the purpose of lecture tours. We have launched a campaign and hence the people ought to feel free to contact the Foundation for these websites and share with us the pleasure of joining this noble cause.
Everybody is required here, because it is the area where Muslims and non-Muslims could converge, and also the Muslims themselves when they discover this, they will realise the breadth of the many fields those inventors contributed to, including science, engineering, medicine, pharmacy, chemistry, geography, botany, zoology, arts, architecture, agriculture, astronomy, etc. They will discover that those pioneers included women scientists and also included non-Muslims, who worked closely with Muslims in full harmony. More importantly, they will ask for the reasons why did these pioneers did what they did. Did they just do it for degrees like BSc, masters and PhD, or to get a Nobel prize? Did they do it so that they become closer to the King or the Caliph? In fact, they will discover that all of these people had different incentives and also they had different understanding of their religion, one which is different from that many of us may have today.
It’s a vision, wasn’t it?
It was a different vision; it was a different understanding of Islam that made them do what they did. They were not told by the government to do what they did, they did it by themselves and some of them were living in very tough conditions. Young people today cannot say: well I don’t have the right environment to be innovative, inventive and achieving high levels. They can not say that because when you look at how hard was the life of the father of optics and physics, Ibn al-Haytham, you will feel you have a good life. Let me tell a little story about his life.
Al-Hassan Ibn al-Haytham was born in Basra, South Iraq. Now this gentleman he was giving a sermon in one of the places and he said that if I was given the chance I’d make Egypt the richest country in the world. Now, of course he was in Iraq in Basra, but Egypt at the time, like nowadays in most countries, they had their own private eyes, they had spies, and so this word got to the ruler of Egypt who sent for him. When he came to Cairo, the ruler gave him the opportunity to fulfil his Basra statement. Ibn al-Haytham said give me a boat, and he sailed south upstream the Nile towards Sudan. After seeing the great monuments the ancient Egyptians built on both sides of the Nile, he stopped the mission and returned back. He told the ruler that he intended to build a dam to regulate the water of the Nile to be used in different seasons, but if this idea was good it would have been carried out by those people. Not doing so, meant that there must be something very wrong with it. He insisted he was not going to do it. Though this displeased the ruler, he kept Ibn al-Haytham in the palace as consultant. Ibn al-Haytham had high morals and could not accept association with dictatorship and unfairness. In consequence, he decided he wanted to get out but he didn’t know how to get out, so he pretended he was mad, and irrational, hoping they would expel him out of the palace. But to his disappointment, instead they threw him into prison. It was while in the prison that he produced all the innovative work on physics of vision and optics that revolutionised science ever since. His experiments to prove that the eye is like a “dark room” . In Arabic “Hujra Muzlimah” . In Latin Camera Obscura and eventually gave birth to the modern camera. His work triggered the notion that theories have to be verified by experiments, thus giving birth to modern science as we know it.
I think one of the amazing inspirations you draw from this is that the circumstances in which most of these scholars lived, and yet the amazing work they produced in those circumstances.
Exactly. Al-Biruni has written 200 books under the candle light in north India and Afghanistan, travelling, experimenting, seeking funds for his research, and going through enormous difficulties. Interestingly, he once wrote that had it not been for Rehana, (name of a woman), he would not have been able to accomplish what he achieved. So we see there were women involved in science. This is a very important subject for research. Although he was a gigantic scientist, he was also a man of strong belief in God. Many Muslim inventors and scholars had to struggle and sacrifice their comfort and luxury in their quest for knowledge. I think unfortunately, this is not commonly known by both Muslims and non Muslims. One thing quite apparent in the lives of these great men and women is that understood Islam in a slightly different way from many Muslims today. This I shall explain later. However, this understanding helped to reconcile religion and science, religion and technology, religion and modernity. Such powerful concepts accelerated development and growth and it may be that they can also be adapted to do the same in our societies today.
One phenomenon which is mentioned in British history is the idea that the industrial revolution took place predominantly in the 19th century. Can you comment on this phenomenon taking into account the fact that you yourself have a background in engineering and technology. From a historical perspective, what contributions Muslims may have made in this area?
This is a very interesting question because obviously every one of us has been inculcated with this, that the industrial revolution took place in England, in fact in my city Manchester, and that marked the advent of the mass production. Mass production can only be possible when you rely solely on automatic machines and energy like steam and of course later electricity, etc. If you look deep into this, you will find that automation existed long before that period and also machines today still rely on certain key elements invented in the past. There are some parts of the machine without them it would not work, for instance to transfer rotation of motion into a linear motion or vice versa. Our cars have pistons, they go up and down because of the explosion that the petrol creates when it becomes gas and it is ignited. The piston inside a cylinder then goes up and down. Now this reciprocating motion is taken through what we call a connecting rod and that goes into some cam system which will transfer it into a rotational motion through a shaft. This shaft turns the wheels and the car moves. The opposite of that mechanism is the reciprocating water pump where, instead of the tire of the wheel, you have paddles. The river stream moves the paddle as in the noria (a water wheel). As it turns round, the shaft, the axial, turns round then it transfers this rotational motion through a cam to a connecting rod and then converts the motion into a reciprocating one so that the piston going up and down to suck and pump water in and out of the cylinder. The water from the river is pumped into water works feeding farms, towns, etc. The cam and crank-wheel are key inventions for industrial machinery, locomotives, cars, power generation, etc. It was in the year 1200 that Al-Jazari has written a famous book in which he has described how to construct many automatic machines that work in this way and so on. Later on, he was followed by a brilliant engineer/scientist, Taqi al-Din, who had created a sort of synchronised motion of six water pumps, using a system of cams and connecting rods.
There is another vital item in industrial machines, that is the “worm and wheel”. It transfers rotational motion about one axis and transfer it to another axis using a screw to turn a large connected wheel. This was used in the year 870 by the famous Banu Musa, the sons of Musa Ibn Shakir of Baghdad. They invented many automatic, mainly hydraulic trick devices. One of them was a self changing water pump. It changes shape, yet there was no electricity. It was like magic. On reading the manuscript, we discover that a machine containing a worm and wheel and a navel valve were hidden inside. The worm and wheel appeared for the first time in those fountains, and they became essential control devices in all future workshops and industrial machines.
When you look at the vast farms during the Muslim civilisation, stretching out from China to Spain, you discover a period where there was no famine in the world. Those farms used water effectively by employing pumps and water raising machines and efficient irrigation systems.
Muslims treated water extremely well, making use of water power not only to pump water but also to drive grinding wheels and later to drive paper mills that had to mix and beat pulp. Industrial production of paper using multi hammers brought paper into North Africa and into Europe. Of course originally the idea of making paper from chemical process was Chinese. They used a cast in a tray or mould to produce a paste. Muslims, however, used pulp and mechanical processing to produce thin paper and in mass production.
The textile industry was enormous. The military industry combined the use of gun powder and canons. Iron and steel spread very fast across the Muslim world. Speaking about steel, until now we do not even know the secrets of the Damascus swords. Interestingly, there was an article in Nature which revealed that some of the Damascus swords had nano-tubes. Because they did not have electron microscopes at the time, they did not know that their special chemical and heat treatment processes produced nano-tubes as a result, and hence the special qualities of these swords. We are taught that the industrial revolution first took off in England then spread into Europe and then later to America, but not many people know that its real birth was in Muslim lands.
This the key area which you mentioned is not in the syllabuses today and yet it is something that should be in the syllabus, just as a kind of acknowledgement that there was a period before the Industrial Revolution in which all these contributions were made. Related to this question is how were these scientific projects and developments financed?
We note that during that period, not all governments were directly involved in these projects. Some governments like a few Abbasid caliphs were interested in science and knowledge and so they became active supporters, but in general Muslims used the waqf system (charitable endowments). Waqf is not like today’s perception of Muslims, that Waqfs are for building mosques. In the early periods, Waqf was for the sajid before the masjid. I will tell you what I mean. In Arabic sajid means the one who makes sujud, the person performing prostration, while masjid means the places where the prostration takes place, i.e. mosque. These people understood the importance of the human beings first before the buildings, so they invested their waqf to be used for the betterment of the quality of life of the people. The result was that they would need the masajid to pray but the investment was on the improvement of the well-being of the people and therefore medical research was financed by waqf, industrial research and agricultural research were also financed by waqf.
There were some peculiar waqfs. For example, there was a waqf for angry wives, in places normally an annex to a public bath, where women chat, drink and have recreational activities. There were also waqfs for stray dogs, for birds and other charities for servants who can go to those places and get money to replace broken potteries, saucers and plates, because they did not want to make their master angry so as to help them keep their jobs.
The charity and social philanthropy were fully mature. Take for example Al-Biruni. He wanted to measure the circumference of the Earth, because he predicted how much it was from using his theories about the curvature and the movement of the stars, etc. So he made calculations and he wanted to verify them by measuring the circumference of the Earth by measuring the arc of 1 degree and multiplying it by 360. He chose the area and he sent two caravans of scientists, one travelling north and the other from many hundreds of miles away travelling south so that when they meet at their meeting point and they keep measuring and putting post sticks on etc, then he can use that information. When they did that, his calculations somehow were quite different. He realised that his calculations were not right and decided to repeat the experiment. He said he could not repeat the field experiment because unfortunately the donor had died. Now if I ask anyone, if I come to you and ask you to give me some money to measure the circumference of the Earth, you will probably think that I am mad. Can you imagine you go to a rich Muslim businessman in Birmingham and ask him for some money to promote science, industry, agriculture or even to measure the circumference of the Earth? He will tell you to go away because he wants to build a mosque or feed an orphan or send a patient to the hospital.
Building the institutions requires the people.
Yes. Also the idea of waqf has to expand from relief projects to construction and development of the society, whether it is Muslim or non Muslim. Did you know that the whole original idea of old age pension that we enjoy in this country is a Muslim innovation? At the time of Umar Ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph, he saw an old Jewish man begging. He asked him why on earth he was doing this. The man explained that he was frail and had no income. Umar then said “woe to Umar and may Allah forgive Umar, we have used your youth but have forsaken you when you became old and frail”. Then Umar decreed that the bayt al-mal (treasury) must issue monthly salaries for old people. That was the beginning of the old age pension system. That person was a Jew and not a Muslim, but he was a human being.
People understood the humanistic purpose of their religion. They also understood that the frequently mentioned verse of the Quran which says “those who believe (âmano) and did useful (sâlih) deeds”. Present day Muslims interpret such deeds as extra prayers, more Quran recitation, extra fasting, etc. Yes, it does mean that as well, but it actually means a lot more than that. The proper meaning of it is useful or beneficial, i.e. being useful and beneficial to others. The way you measure the degree of your faith is by how useful you are to others, Muslims or non Muslims. That is how those people understood and implemented their faith and practiced their Islam. If Muslims today had this attitude they will be loved by everybody. This understanding had instigated the understanding the idea that faith is expressed through useful deeds.
What is the role of women in science?
The subject of women of science and women who contributed to the welfare of that great civilisation is little known. How many of us know that the first university in the history of mankind was established by a young Muslim woman, Fatima al-Fihri. The university is still with us and that is the University of Qarrawiyyin in Fez today. In the year 860, more than a thousand years ago, the concept of institutionalised academic research and teaching was born. The University or jâmi’a is the feminine word of jâmi’, mosque. The lady began a daily fast on the first day of the launch until the day when the building was finished. In relation with the subject of education, we still use the words chair for professors and baccalaureate “behaqqe rawayah” from those days.
Muslim women have contributed a great deal. In the time of Umar, the second caliph, he appointed two women, one on Makkah and the other in Medinah, as the first Health and Safety Executives known to the modern world. They would inspect the cleanliness, health and safety hazards, etc., anything that is produced on the market or in the factory. How many Muslims and non Muslims know that those two first Health and Safety Executives in the world were women?
There were also women in science, like the mathematician Sutaita Al-Mahamli of Baghdad and Meriam Al-Ajlia who used to make astrolabes in Aleppo. There must be thousands of them whose names are buried in the 5 million manuscripts remaining unedited in the archives of world libraries.
I think you are touching on this whole idea of the emancipation of women which took place in the United Kingdom with the suffragettes in the early 20th century, whereas from an Islamic perspective it took place from the time of the Prophet Muhammad.
There is a 4 volume book recently published by Dr Abushaqa from Egypt. This book has been boycotted by some countries. Its title is The Emancipations of Women at the time of Prophet Muhammad. Women were active and participating in every walk of life, all because of the Quran and the way they understood it. Unfortunately, nowadays people see Muslim women as backwards. So obviously they must have been in a worst situation a thousand years ago. This is quite the contrary. It should be noted that it was until only about 150 years ago that women in Europe were considered to have a soul. The real women liberal movement started in the time of Prophet Muhammad. Hence you will find that in the history of Islam there are so many famous women scholars among the ulema community.
You often refer to cultural superiority and social cohesion. Could you amplify?
The thing we are trying to talk about here is that the danger in the West and maybe even the rest of the world is that the use of cultural superiority and civilisational high ground to justify conquering and hurting other nations like what happened to the Red Indians and the Incas. Like many people, you and I watched cowboy films. I do not think any of us was against the hero of the film, we always enjoyed seeing him kill Red Indians. These poor people were only trying to defend their homeland from the invaders who took land and built fully armed settlements. We were conditioned to support the cowboy despite the fact that we see him rape, cruel and drunkard. What has influenced our sense of judgement to accept such behaviour? Hurting other nations in the name of cultural superiority has to stop because the world is now like one family, it is a global world, and we need to recognise and respect each other. Muslims and non Muslims have to respect one another, they have to live with each other peacefully, harmoniously, and the best way is by recognising the contributions that each gave to the other. Thus, for example if a businessman from the UK wants to sell in China, it would be much easier for him if he knows the Chinese contributions to modern society so that when he sits over lunch meeting he can tell his Chinese client: “By the way, I know that your ancestors have contributed a great deal to our progress and that, had it not been for the Chinese, we would not have had paper, magnetic needle, gun powder, etc.” He would find it much easier to sell, wouldn’t he? Similarly in order to dry out the swamp of extremism and tension between communities to create social cohesion, we need to recognise the contributions from each of these communities to present society. In this respect the 1001 Inventions book bring out numerous scientific contributions made by early Muslims which still influence our society.
My next question is related to engineers and the concept of travel. I just wanted to ask about contributions Muslims made in the field of transport and travel?
I must say I am not really a specialist in this field. I know that they have travelled of course all over the world because they had to maintain vast areas. Actually Muslims remain a minority for centuries after they enter any society or country. For example in Spain, Jewish and some Christian communities were subjected by government. They asked Muslims for help. The Muslims came to defend human rights and to free these people. They stayed as a minority for 700 years, no force was used to convert the population despite the rule was Islamic. A lot of the people became Muslims. But unfortunately, millions of them were annihilated and killed under the inquisition. The same situation we see in Egypt and India. That is why we see so many non-Muslims despite the fact that Islam ruled in these areas for hundreds of years.
So therefore I think there was a lot of travel because of the pilgrimage caravans. Their caravans and fleets were fantastic, the ship industry was excellent, and the methods of communications were efficient. The postal system included land, sea and by air. Yes by air. Birds used to carry messages. Messages had to be coded. A new science of cryptology and coding and decoding had actually been developed by Muslims. There is an interesting book by Martin S. King entitled The Code Book which is about computer codes. In it there is a whole chapter about the Muslim scholar Al-Kindi who invented the specific method of decoding. This method was used by the enigma machine, used during the war to decode Russian and German military messages. Of course the Romans had a great system of roads. In the UK most countryside roads were built by Romans. So many people do not know that. Unfortunately not many people know about the good contributions of Romans. They only know about the Romans because of the Gladiators and they think the Romans were just killers throwing Christians to the lions.
How do you think this knowledge of Muslim scientific heritage can contribute to our lives in the UK, not only from a historical perspective but a contemporary perspective too?
Seeking knowledge is compulsory religious requirement on every Muslim male and female. They want to educate themselves, they want to have a strong faith and they must see an output out of that faith. The output must be useful work. Many young people know about a saying of the Prophet saying “Innama ‘l-a’mal bi-‘l-niyat”, which means deeds are but by intentions. The intentions mean you have to think, plan and then you clarify your objective and then you go and do your deeds. Therefore you have to think if this is going to be useful. Not useful to you only, but useful to others as well. Is it useful to the environment, etc. That means you must have also a position of knowledge, not only of the Quran but also knowledge of today’s requirements, today’s technology, management, methodology, today’s knowledge. If Muslims can actually work upon that, they would excel in society. The result of their religiousness will become useful to society and not harmful. The whole of this country is suffering from decline in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects, and Muslims can contribute. The Muslims can become one of the excellent bridges in terms of trade, diplomatic relations with the rest of the Muslim world, in terms of technology transfer, in England here. We are living a different world now and to be realistic, the wealth of knowledge in technology in the UK can be immediately useful to the rest of the Muslim world, and if the Muslims in the UK were to be vehicle for doing that then they will be trusted by the people and government here, and also by the governments in the Muslim world as well. They will become an asset not a threat.
I think the key point which you mentioned is that just from the conversation that we have had today is that the contributions Muslims have made around the world should be looked at as a role model based on the same principles here in the UK, where you are seen as a beneficial asset to the society you are in.
This explains why Muslims have influenced the rest of the world in the past, Muslims had to be trustworthy, to have good manners. Islam stressed on good manners. The Prophet (pbuh) used to say that “there is nothing better than good manners” in the mizan, the balance on the day of judgement, it is the heaviest. Prophet (pbuh) said “I have been sent to compliment good manners, improve good manners.” You have to have honesty, loyalty, generosity, bravery, patriotism. All these qualities are important to humanity and this idea of being useful to others, whether they are Muslims or non Muslims, is the key to progress and social harmony.
Coming to the times we are living in, the 1001 Inventions Exhibition dilutes a lot of the misconceptions which portray Muslims as extremists, radicals etc., and you get to see the true face of Islam.
There were a lot of feedback from many people who visited the exhibition in Manchester, Cardiff, etc. This feedback was just unbelievable. A lot of people were always saying they did not realise the Muslim community made so much contribution to us. Even Muslims themselves were astonished. There was one boy from Leeds was apparently almost suicidal and was feeling fed up from life, society and his parents, and being rejected in school. He was brought by some of his friends to that exhibition and was given a copy of the 1001 Inventions book. He sat down to read it. After a while he stood up suddenly putting the book on his chest and screemed “God I feel I am a human being now”. He has become a living human being with dignity which he lacked, rather than a person who was about to kill himself. To become a human being living in society, society must recognise you as one with full rights. Islam is part of the British life and Muslims are an integral part of the British society.
Thank you very much Professor. We enjoyed having you and chatting so brilliantly about all these enthusing topics.