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Muslim Contributions to Science: An Exhibition
By Dr. Rizwana Rahim
TCCI, Chicago, IL

Titled “1001 Inventions,” an exhibition now at the Museum of Science and Technology, Manchester, UK, features contributions to science from the Islamic world. It also includes book of the same title by Salim Al-Hassani, Mechanical Engineer, that goes into further details. It is scheduled to end in the first week of June. There was a timely article on it, ‘The Zenith of Islamic Science’ by Philip Ball in the prestigious British science magazine, ‘Nature’ (vol. 440, page 997, 20 April, 2006).
Given the current political climate, it also reflects the level of interest in what other things have the Muslims brought to the world. The exhibition is largely an educational resource designed for young audience, but those familiar with the science areas may also find in it something new and interesting. There is, for instance, a ‘Water Clock’ by Ibn al-Jazari and cataract operations by Ibn al-Mosuli.
The article points to the general ignorance in the West about this Muslim contribution, and that impression is perhaps best reflected in a 2004 comment by Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey: “It is sad to relate that no great invention has come for many hundred years from Muslim countries.” In books on history of science, Muslim contributions generally get a short shrift, as they skip from Archimedes (3rd century BC) to Gutenberg (15th century AD), as if the intervening time was really ‘Dark Ages’ as it is called. In fact, it was during this very time frame that Muslim science and culture were at their peak. From 6th to 11th century AD, Persian and Arab scientists did make phenomenal advances in sciences and left indelible footprints in different fields, most prominently in astronomy. See what these Arabic words conjure up: Algebra, alkali, alcohol, zenith, etc !
Ball also makes some valid criticism of the claims and statements made in the display, mostly without documentation, touting Muslim primacy in various areas, on display in the exhibition: for instance claims that (i) Gothic ribs originated in the mosques of Toledo and Cardoba, (ii) European universities originated from Muslim scholarship organizations, (iii) Jaber ibn Hayyam is the founder of chemistry, or (iv) Islamic science began on its own, without any help from any other civilization.
The exhibition does highlight the Muslim contributions, but the fact remains that, despite a glorious past, Islamic science has indeed been quite undistinguished in recent centuries, perhaps for over 1,000 years. The Archbishop may have put it rather indelicately, but he wasn’t too far off the mark. Islamic predominance in science did taper off as the Renaissance began in Europe. This fact cannot be ignored or dismissed, and it would be delusional to think that the rest of the world doesn’t wonder why (for want of a better term) ‘Islamic science’ is no longer the force it once was.
Exhibitions like this offer an opportunity to revel in the past, but what happened to the potential and promise it once held for the future?



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