By Ajaz Ahmad Rather
Technology is defined as the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes. For the former to be realised, the latter needs to be nurtured. In the Muslim world, nonetheless, both have been accorded little space to flourish. While there is acknowledgement of a glorious past where science was supreme, there is an even more serious acknowledging history of darkness and drudgery that still persists.
The state of darkness becomes more visible in the light of the momentous stream of technological advancements in the west and elsewhere that increasingly challenge Muslims to take stock of their problems.
A report, “Science at the Universities of the Muslim World” (SUMW), prepared by a Task Force headed by Tan Sri Zakri Abdul Hamid, Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of Malaysia was published in 2015 for Muslim World Science Initiative. The report has addressed some of the crucial issues facing advancement of science in the Muslim world, especially its universities. However, some chilling facts have also been recorded:
• The OIC has nearly a quarter of the world’s population, but contributes only 2.4% to its research expenditure, has only 1.6% of its patents, and only 6% of its publications.
• The 2014/2015 edition of the Times Higher Education world university rankings had only 10 universities from the Muslim world in the top 400. In the most recent QS World University Rankings, no university of the Muslim world was in the top 100, and only 17 ranked among the top 400.
• UNESCO data shows an average of about 600 researchers per million population for the OIC countries. Compared to it, Brazil has 1000, Spain 4000, and Israel 9000. The latter, thus, has 15 times more than OIC.
• Since its inception in 1901, the Nobel Prize for chemistry and physics has been awarded to three Muslim scientists only, namely Mohammad Abdus Salam (1979), and Ahmed Zewail (1999), and Aziz Sancar (2015),
• Overall, OIC countries invest less than 0.5% of their GDP on R&D, while the world average is 1.78%, and most advanced OECD countries spend 2.5-3%.
• The Muslim world has only about 550 universities in all of its 57 OIC countries. The United States, with less than 0.5 billion people, has 5,758 universities.
• In 2005, Harvard University produced more scientific papers than 17 Arabic-speaking nations
Given these facts about diverse countries and societies on three continents of the globe with a common denomination of Islam, it becomes inevitable to discuss the relationship of the latter with science and technology. As such, there are two key issues. The first is whether Islam encourages or inhibits science and technology. The second is, in case religion encourages science and technology, why Islam, being the common denominator, has not been able to unleash an era of educational and scientific revolution as it is universally acknowledged it was able to produce at its first appearance? Due to paucity of space we limit ourselves to the former issue.
Islamic Principles for Technology
From an Islamic perspective, human life is composed of two main parts; the temporary present and the permanent future, divided by the event of death. The former is the test while the latter a reward of performance in the test. One needs to invest for the endless future life in this time-bound ephemeral one. However, the hereafter does not usually come at the cost of the ‘here’. On the contrary, there is a maximisation of both under a unique principle-centred environment. Yet, human efforts under all circumstances are designed to attain the best of both worlds.
Attaining the best in both worlds has also to be our consciousness, and one should not deliberately, under the spell of the hereafter, deny himself the good things in this world (Quran, 28:77). Therefore, a healthy environment in this world as well as the hereafter has to be a passionate desire of every Muslim (Quran 2:201). The former obviously often comes in the form of improved amenities that are basic to life, like food, clothing, housing, roads, healthcare, better jobs, etc. In most of these, technology can play, and usually does play, a vital role. Therefore, under such considerations, technology has a huge incentive to be generated and propagated.
In the same context, doing good to someone also includes directing technology towards unprivileged sections. As such, technology and charity or doing good in general occupy, in part, the same space. Both become, for the time being, equivalent to each other. Objectives of reducing poverty, malnourishment, mortality, and increasing facilities like roads, schools and hospitals are also decisions about the type of technology feasible under particular circumstances.
Extensive use of scientific statements in the Quran also renders their application, if not indispensable but at least commendable. This, on one hand institutionalises these facts and on the other helps in understanding these statements in better detail. Therefore, the latter has lately been used to understand the Quranic text itself. As such, technology even ends up playing role of a commentator of the Quran. Also, there is also an important encouragement to learn from others by Islam. More than anything else, technology is the best and most neutral candidate for this category.
Technology at Work: Some Instructive Examples
Apart from these general principled positions on technology and the way it is not only endorsed but even highly encouraged in Islam, there are many instructively detailed cases that make the use of technology as part of beloved Sunnah, the way of the Prophet (pbuh) and followers.
The story of Yusuf (pbuh) in the Quran contains such an important episode. Towards the middle of the Sura (12:54-55) he was put in charge of the storehouse of the country with a challenge to preserve grains for years to ward off the detrimental impact of the impending shortages in ensuing years. This could only be achieved by the use of technology that Yusuf (pbuh) learnt from the culture or invented himself. Since the Quran records what a prophet did, its importance is established independently. There is a great lesson that technology matters and at times plays a life-saving role.
The story of Zul Qarnayn, also contains an episode with similar implications (18:94-97). The Quran mentions, “They (a community whom he met during his expeditions) said, ‘Dhu ’l-Qarnayn, Gog and Magog are ruining this land. Will you build a barrier between them and us if we pay you a tribute?’ He answered, ‘The power my Lord has given me is better than any tribute, but if you lend me your strength, I will put up a fortiﬁcation between you and them: bring me lumps of iron!’ and then, when he had ﬁlled the gap between the two mountainsides [he said], ‘Work your bellows!’ and then, when he had made it glow like ﬁre, he said, ‘Bring me molten metal to pour over it!’ Their enemies could not scale the barrier, nor could they pierce it.”
By the standards of his time, this might have been a technological feat. What matters here is the strong positive relationship between piety and technology. For him it was a righteous act rather than secular enterprise we usually consider technology to be.
The incident of ark building by Noah in anticipation of the floods is another striking incident where practical application of science is exhibited. In Sura Hud, (11:37-42), some concerned sections read: “Build the Ark under Our [watchful] eyes and with Our inspiration…..’ So he began to build the Ark,….We said, ‘Place on board this Ark a pair of each species, and your own family…. He said, ‘Board the Ark. In the name of God it shall sail and anchor. My God is most forgiving and merciful.’ It sailed with them on waves like mountains.” A unique and scintillating blend of Taqwa and technology in this event is greatly captivating. And it is here where our exclusive conceptualisation of righteousness and imposed segregation of worldly and otherworldly acts has cost us heavily.
The Quran mentions uses of iron for both peace and war (57:25). Since iron needs to be refined (mentioned in 13:17) for conversion into useful instruments, technology for the same implicitly becomes indispensable. The need for its pliability is further discussed in chapter 34:10-11. The chapter makes mention of copper (34:12) as well. There is also the mention of dam of the people of Saba in the same chapter. The Quran also draws our attention to making of clothes (16:801-81’ 92). Making of solid and beautiful structures, like those build by Sulayman also get Allah’s attention (61:4, 34:13, 27:44). In the chapter, the Bee, mention is made of the making of tents and drinks. In all these cases, the use of technology is implicitly or explicitly not only endorsed but encouraged.
There is one important reference regarding the progressive advancement of technology in coming times. The Quran mentions in chapter Ar-Rehman : “O company of jinn and mankind, if you are able to pass beyond the regions of the heavens and the earth, then pass. You will not pass except by authority [from Allah]”. Scholars mention the use of the conditional word ‘if’ (in Arabic “inn”) in the verse essentially denotes a possibility rather than an impossibility. Accordingly, the future was assumed implicitly to witness momentous breakthrough in technology which would enable humans to journey the distant and unexplored regions of the earth and the heavens. This obviously would furnish human beings with new opportunities to benefit from hitherto unused resources as well as look further into the marvels of Allah’s creation.
There is nothing that withholds Muslims from development and use of technology. On the contrary, they are encouraged to develop and use technology for better appreciation of Allah’s creation as well as His Revelation, better use of available resources and better benefit of mankind in general. Nonetheless, the backwardness of Muslims still remains a major paradoxical phenomenon the exploration of which needs further intellectual investment.
—The writer is a lecturer in economics