This short article is a highlight of an online lecture recently given on 19 February 2023 by Professor Salim Al-Hassani, organised by FARDA (Future Awareness through Rational and Actions), Uppsala University, Sweden).
Was there R&D in Muslim Civilisation? You may ask.
There is scarce mention of Research & Development in the history of Muslim civilisation, which begs the question if such intellectual pursuits and advancements were undertaken by Muslims. This can be attributed to a blind spot in the history of R&D as presented in school STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) textbooks and university science and engineering courses. One only needs to list the names of scientists and inventors and spread them along a timeline to discover a gap of more than 1000 years. A similar amnesia is discernable in popular books detailing the development of science and inventions across the ages. This gap represents the period between the Greek/Roman era and the European Renaissance.
Well !! A look at recent publications on the contributions of scholars from Muslim civilization reveals an enormous amount of work done in the fields of science, math, engineering, medicine, architecture, geography, geology, and astronomy. This slide shows some of them. They include men and women of different races and faiths. The next slide shows the names of some women of science, medicine, and management, who thrived in Muslim civilization:
We must, however, not think that all scholars were only Arabs, men or were only Muslims. Nor should we think that because Muslims translated Greek, Persian, Indian and Chinese works, they did not produce their own original work or inventions.
Typical examples in my own field as an engineer include the works of Banu Musa of Baghdad, Al-Jazari of Upper Mesopotamia, Ridhwan of Damascus, Al-Moradi of Al-Andalus, Taqi al-Din of Istanbul, Al-Tlemsani and Al-Lajjai of Fez.
The Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid who reigned from 786-809 CE sent a fascinating water clock as a gift to the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, demonstrating the advanced level of technology in Baghdad at that time compared to Europe.
Here are a few reconstructed animations out of the hundreds of examples of ingenious devices developed at the time across the Muslim world:
See the animation video here.
See the animation video here.
Mind you that there are millions of manuscripts in Arabic. Only 50 thousand are edited. Unfortunately, most are about dynasties, wars, religious discussions, and poetry. It is inconceivable that amongst the thousands of unedited manuscripts not to find a huge number of them on various STEM subjects.
BUT that is NOT the main theme of this short talk.
It is therefore pertinent to ask: what are the main lessons we can learn to enable us to build a better world? The impetus that gave rise to R&D in Muslim civilisation can be traced back to some common principles. The focus of this lecture is not to discuss the reasons why Muslim civilisation deteriorated and how it gave way to European civilisation during the Renaissance. I must, however, shed light on some conspicuous features that formed the bedrock of R&D during the centuries when Muslim civilisation thrived. I shall focus only on ones that the Renaissance ignored, eventually giving rise to our present imbalanced world.
By far the most apparent feature that inspired and guided R&D is demonstrated by the title of the most famous book of engineering in the history of Muslim civilization, the book by Al-Jazari…
الجامع بين العلم والعمل النافع في صناعة الحيل
“Al-Jami baynal I’lm wal-a’mal al-Nafi’ fi Sina’at al-Hiyal”
The Combination of Science and Useful Deeds in the Development of Ingenious Mechanical Devices
So, one principle is that Science has to have a useful end. “Useful Deed” is defined in the Quran as A’mal Salih “Useful Deed that is acceptable by Allah” أن أعمل صالحاً ترضاه .
Such Useful Deeds resulted in on social development of people, care for animals and environmental protection.
A practical manifestation of the Quranic principle: Man is Vicegerent of Allah. Entrusted by God to build, develop and cultivate the planet.
How was this done?
Much effort was expended in the development of a balanced individual, an equal balance between the Mind, the Body, and the Soul. This required a balance in conduct in all walks of life. The principle of ‘balance’ was apparent in most dealings obviously including the most dominant activity of development at the time: Trade and Agriculture.
Take for example how business was conducted. This applies to other dealings including developments in science, engineering medicine, etc.
A Businessperson in Arabic is called TAJiR تاجر (ت ا ج ر)
The Tajir (literally Merchant) would observe the four characteristics defined by T A J R whilst dealing with the people or with the environment.
The understanding of Halal (permitted) and Haram (unlawful) governed the behaviour of faithful individuals. Whether traders, scholars, researchers, rulers, men, and women, people would have to remain in a green (Halal) zone between two barriers (Haram) zones.
There emerged a community of people who cared for others as a matter of religious obligation and faith. Hence the principle of WE. Unfortunately, when Renaissance Europe emerged, two characteristics grew inside it. These were principles of ME and USUARY.
These led to rampant selfish behaviour and the continuous growth of market forces, dominating all life including R&D. The market forces require GROWTH and since then until today ‘growth’ has been dominating the minds of planners of our societies.
Eventually, we ended up with a very small super-rich group owning, and thus controlling, the rest of humanity.
OXFAM REPORT Published: 16th January 2023 says:
“Richest 1% bag nearly twice as much wealth as the rest of the world put together over the past two years”
It is a long story. But I hope in this short talk I have managed to point to some important lessons from Muslim civilisation.
There is a most recent new movement towards readdressing the imbalance in our way of life. It is called DOUGHNUT ECONOMICS, developed by Prof. Kate Raworth.
In conclusion, the main R&D lesson that can be derived from Muslim civilisation is that when individuals collectively embraced the principles of TAJiR, they achieved a balanced, prosperous, sustainable, and green society.