There have been many writings about the glory days of Muslims in science over 500 years in the Middle Ages, from 700AD to 1200AD. Like Al-Haytham, who laid the foundation of modern optics through empirical investigation, Muslim scholars built the foundation of many disciplines of modern science. But why have they lost the glory? Is it due to the stealing of their knowledge by the Europeans? Or, as alien criminals burnt their libraries, destroyed their learning places, and killed their scientists, Muslims lost the edge? Of course, there has been some truth in such questions. But could it be a far greater truth, such as followers like Europeans started outperforming Muslims in advancing science due to the success of driving economic prosperity by science?
Of course, there has been an urge among the Muslims to regain their glory in science. They have money to spend for this purpose. But how should they attempt? Should they accelerate investment in expanding science education, producing many more graduates? Should they increase R&D investment, resulting in a growing number of STEM publications, patents, and awards like Nobel Prize-winning? If they do and acquire the top position in publications, patents, and Nobel Prize-winning, will such an achievement be sustained? What could be an alternative means for sharpening science and driving economic prosperity so that a perpetual machine is created for sustainable edge sharpening?
Muslims Gained STEM edge and Became Follower—Underlying reason
In more than 300 verses in the Holy Quran, humans have been instructed to gather knowledge about the creation to comprehend the greatness of almighty Allah, the creator. Humans have been asked to know, think, and realize by referring to the wonders of creation. Upon getting this lesson, Muslims focused on investigating different aspects of creation, such as Biology, Chemistry, Astronomy, and Physics, among others. They also concentrated on mathematics to codify knowledge underlying naturally occurring phenomena as variables and their relations. Of course, the journey began from learning the existing body of knowledge residing among Greeks and others. However, they started making scientific discoveries due to the urge to keep learning.
Consequentially, in the Middle Ages, Muslims succeeded in building society as the scientific center of the world. For 500 hundred years, the Arabic language was synonymous with learning and science. In the mission of knowing the creation to see the vastness of the creator, Muslims created a golden age. It can count among its credits the precursors to modern universities, algebra, and the names of the stars. Even the honor of inventing the basic notion of science as a discipline of systematic empirical investigation goes to the Muslims. They also applied the discovered science in inventing and advancing technologies like optical and mechanical instruments to facilitate learning further.
A professor of the history of science at the University of Oklahoma said, ”Nothing in Europe could hold a candle to what was going on in the Islamic world until about 1600.” We know very little about this golden age as only a few significant scientific works from that era have been translated from Arabic. It’s unfortunate that modern scholars have not read thousands of manuscripts of that era as they have not been translated from Arabic.
Science Progresses in Driving Economic Prosperity
Numerous manuscripts suggest that Muslims attained an undisputed scientific edge in the Middle Ages. Of course, that knowledge served the purpose of the instruction of the holy Quran to know the creation, strengthening their belief in Almighty Allah. However, little evidence has been that they leveraged the growing scientific knowledge base to drive economic prosperity. Despite the inventions of some tools to facilitate scientific investigation, there appears to be no evidence of profiting from science in advancing inventions and innovations in offering increasingly better means to get jobs done. As a result, the persuasion of science was limited among the scientists in discovering knowledge and disseminating the knowledge as human virtue. Even the work of the sole Muslim Nobel Prize winner in Physics, Prof. Salam, is to answer outstanding questions about the misty of creation.
Science advances no longer due to the sole purpose of knowing. In modern times, the profit-making race of inventing technologies, innovating products, and systematically advancing them appears to be an increasing driver of scientific advancement. Consequentially, a growing number of Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry find their roots in the urge to make products better and cheaper. For example, one of Sony’s engineers got a Nobel prize in 1975 for advancing transistors to support Sony’s mission of profiting from the reinvention of Radio, TV, and many other consumer electronics products. Similarly, scientific knowledge discovery beneath light-emitting diodes, electronic image sensors, and lithium-ion batteries, among many others, is to profit from leveraging science in advancing and winning the Innovation race.
Purpose of Science in the Muslim World
Should the enhancement of science be limited to the cause of knowing the creation only? Is it contradictory to leverage science for learning the greatness of the creator and driving economic prosperity simultaneously? With the given lesson of the holy Quran and the way of life of the Muslims, profiting from making products better, cheaper, and less harmful by science appears to be very encouraging. But how far are the Muslims serious in leveraging science to create Wealth by improving products such as making automobiles more energy efficient and safer, producing more food from the same land, and harnessing energy causing less environmental harm?
By referring to observations such as ”modern science doesn’t claim to address the purpose of life; that is outside the domain. In the Islamic world, the purpose is an integral part of that life,” should we create a boundary between Muslim Science and Modern science? Of course not. Both of them are on the mission of knowing the same creation. For example, Dr. Salam, Dr. Weinberg, and Dr. Sheldon contributed to answering the same question about the creation—how electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force are different manifestations of a single force.
While Muslim scientists were busy only knowing the creation, the Western world started extending the mission of leveraging discovered knowledge for technological innovations in driving wealth creation. Does the lesson of Islam forbid it? Of course not.
Due to the success of Europe in leveraging science to drive inventions and innovations and creating a profit-making market, Europe created a new underlying force for advancing science. Unfortunately, Muslims could not do it. If they could have done it, they could have followed the lesson of the Holy Quran far more holistically. Consequentially, they could have accelerated their mission of scientific advancement and sustained their glory.
Birth of Learning of Science from Muslim Scientists
There could be a claim that civilization clashed, and Muslims lost science glory to Europe due to it. Dr. Abdelhamid Sabra, a retired professor of the history of Arabic science who taught at Harvard, said, ”Civilizations don’t just clash”. It’s the natural process that subsequent generations or civilizations leverage from the learning of predecessors. For this reason, unlike other living creatures like lions or tigers, the human race has been driving science and enjoying increasing prosperity by taking advantage of learning from predecessors.
During the 10th to the 13th century, Europeans translated the work of Muslim scientists written Arabic into Hebrew and Latin ”as fast as they could,” said Dr. King, a historian of science at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt. Consequentially, it opened the learning pathway for Europeans from the scientific knowledge base Muslims created. It ultimately started transforming the Western civilization. Historians say the infusion of this knowledge into Western Europe fueled the Renaissance and the scientific revolution in Europe.
Scientific Discovery of Muslims Seeded the Rise of Europe
Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, and others, in the 17th century, kept advancing the scientific knowledge base created by the Muslims further. Notably, it formed the foundation of mechanical engineering for optimizing design and improving manufacturing precision by leveraging science. Engineering started replacing Craftsmanship, scaling human capability of enhancing quality, reducing cost, and increasing the safety of products through science. Consequentially, profit-making opportunities from the use of science started to surface.
Besides, the English Revolution spanning over 1639-1651 and Adam Smith’s Works led to economic policies encouraging ownership of capital and ideas and freedom of profiting from them. Hence, the profit-making competition out of the advancement of products and processes through the application of science with the help of mechanical engineering started to gather momentum. Due to the opening of profit-making opportunities from the investment made in science and leveraging it through engineering to make products better and cheaper, the industrial revolution started to unfold in UK-led Europe.
Unlike intuition-based knowledge gathering, tinkering-centric invention, and craftsmanship-based replication, systematic empirical investigation and engineering offered far more scalability of progression. As a result, many inventions of pre Industrial Age started gaining momentum, leading to a creative wave of destruction. One of the notable examples has been the growth of the embryonic hero engine into a radical steam engine, unleashing creative destruction force on energy production and transportation. Another creative destruction force has been the mechanization of yarn spinning and fabric weaving, leading to the destruction of the handlooms of Europe and Asia. Consequentially, unlike the Muslims, Europe succeeded in creating a perpetual machine of profiting from scientific discoveries. In retrospect, Europe’s profit-making drive was advancing science at a far faster rate than the underlying religious instruction of Muslims. Consequentially, Muslims lost the glory of science to Europeans.
Underlying Reasons for the Fall of Muslims in Science
There is no denying that the loss of Spain and its magnificent libraries in Córdoba and Toledo weakened the base of Arab learning. Such loss of territory also lowered the funding for Muslim scientists to pursue science. A far greater cause has been that Muslims could not turn their advance in science into advancing their inventions and innovations, creating wealth. Despite the marvelous scientific progress, they kept relying on tinkering-based innovations and craftmanship-centric production of economic value from labor and natural resources. As the purpose of pursuing science by Muslims was about knowing the creation, it was a cost account. Hence, the progress was limited by the patronage and curiosity of sultans and caliphs. Furthermore, the conquest of Arab land by the Ottoman, who were builders and conquerors, not thinkers, and funding for science declined further—as stated by Dr. El-Baz of Boston University.
Contrary to the Muslims, Europeans looked into the progress of science as a means to sharpen weapons, scale up inventions, innovate better products and processes, and generate profitable income from them. Hence, Europeans turned science into a money-making machine, resulting in growing scientific funding. Consequentially, Europeans started outperforming Muslims in Science. The continuation of this trend over decades and centuries has resulted in the loss of the glory of Muslims in Science.
How to Regain the Lost Glory of Muslims in Science?
It appears that the present generation of Muslims is not as inspired as their predecessors by the instruction of the Holy Quran in knowing science beneath the creation. Over the centuries, perhaps, Muslims have deviated from the importance of understanding the creation as a religious duty. Instead, they are more focused on getting jobs, making money, and gaining recognition from STEM education and research. Ironically, despite the vital lesson of the Holy Quran in favor of learning the creation, they often find pursuing science counterproductive to their religious instructions. In addition to saying due to Allah’s instruction, hydrogen combines with Oxygen to form water, they should focus on the underlying mechanics of electrons and the structure of atoms to comprehend the greatness of creation. Hence, perhaps, they should go back to the core message of the Holy Quran about what it takes to be good Muslims.
They should also develop a belief that the race of profiting from science in making products better and cheaper does not contradict the instructions of the Holy Quran. Upon doing so, they should focus on accelerating scientific advancement through profit-making competition of discovering science and transferring it wealth creation. Certainly, discovered knowledge will also improve their understanding of the greatness of the creation of almighty Allah. Once they focus on combining wealth creation and improving understanding about the creation through the advancement of science and leveraging it as the driver of inventions and innovations, they will find the pathway to get the glory back.
Where to Focus to Regain the Glory of Muslims in Science?
They should focus on understanding the role of market and wealth creation dynamics out of technology possibilities in the globally connected competitive market. Such knowledge will likely lead to the realization that STEM education, R&D, publications, patents, and Nobel Prize-winning do not naturally correlate to profiting from wealth creation out of them. Hence, they should focus on linking STEM to drive economic prosperity. Consequentially, it will demand winning the global race of incremental advancement and reinvention waves. Therefore, investment in STEM Education and R&D is not good enough. Linking STEM to drive economic prosperity is a core challenge for creating the edge-sharpening perpetual machine.
Therefore, they should focus on research and education about wealth creation dynamics from technology possibilities. Besides, they should uplift their technology policy of adopting imported matured technology to pursue emerging possibilities. They must focus on fueling the national urge to win the technology innovation race by outperforming competitors in incremental and reinvention advancement. Consequentially, they will succeed in creating a perpetual engine of wealth creation and spirituality enhancement through the advancement of science—leading to regaining glory and empowering the human race in driving endless prosperity.