to Science: An Exhibition
By Dr. Rizwana Rahim
“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
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?