By Dr. Abdus Salam
This is a part of the paper prepared by Professor Abdus Salam for inclusion in a volume presented to the Islamic Summit held in Kuwait in January 1987.
“In the conditions of modern life, the rule is absolute; the race which does not value trained intelligence is doomed … Today we maintain ourselves, tomorrow science will have moved over yet one more step and there will be no appeal from the judgement which will be pronounced … on the uneducated.” Alfred North Whitehead
First and foremost, it is important to reemphasise that the Muslim Ummah constitutes 1/5th of mankind, larger in population than the USA, Western Europe and Japan combined, and only exceeded by China as a unit. In income terms, it represents 1/15th of global GNP – three times as large as that of the Chinese.
So far as the Sciences are concerned, the Muslim Ummah has a proud past. For 350 years, from 750 CE to 1100 CE, the Ummah had an absolute world ascendency in Sciences. From 1100 CE for another 250 years, we shared this ascendency with the emerging West. From the 15th century onwards – this period paradoxically coinciding with the great Empires of Islam (Osmnali in Turkey, Safvi in Iran, Mughal in India) – we progressively lost out. There is no question, but today, of all civilizations on this planet, science is the weakest in the lands of Islam. The dangers of this weakness cannot be overemphasised since honourable survival of a society depends directly on strength in Science and Technology in the conditions of the present age.
Why were the Muslims ascendent in Sciences? Three reasons: first, the early Muslims were following the injunctions of the Holy Book and the Holy Prophet. According to Dr. Muhammad Aijazul Khatib of Damascus University, nothing could emphasize the importance of sciences more than the remark that “in contrast to 250 verses which are legislative, some 750 verses of the Holy Quran – almost one-eight of it – exhort the believers to study Nature to reflect, to make the best use of reason and to make the scientific enterprise an integral part of Community’s life.” The Prophet of Islam – Peace be upon Him – said that it was the “bounden duty of every Muslim – man and woman – to acquire knowledge”.
From these injunctions, followed the second reason for our ascendency. Notwithstanding the customary opposition of traditionalists, upto the fifteenth century the scientific enterprise and the scientists in early Islam were supported magnificently by the Muslims principalities and by the Islamic society. Thus, to paraphrase what H.A.R Gibb has written in the context of literature: “To a greater extent than elsewhere, the flowering of the sciences in Islam was conditinal… on the liberality and patronage of those in high positions. So long as, in one capital or another, princes and ministers found pleasure, profit or reputation in partronising the sciences, the torch was kept burning.” And some princes – like Ulugh Beg at Samarkand – themselves joined in the scientific quest.
The third reason for our ascendency was connected with the cohesion of the Ummah – the Islamic nations, notwithstanding their political differences, acted as a unified Commonwealth, so far as Sciences were concerned.
The importance of science for the Muslim nations
Why am I so passionately advocating our engaging in the enterprise of Science and of creating Scientific knowledge? This is not just because Allah has endowed us with the urge to know, this is not just because in the conditions of today this knowledge is power and science in application, the major instrument of material progress and meaningful defence; it is also that as self-respecting members of the international world community, we must discharge our responsibility towards and pay back our debt for the benefits we derive from the research stock of contempt for us – unspoken, but certainly there – of those who create knowledge.
I can still recall a Nobel Prize Winner in Physics from a European country say this to me some years ago: “Salam, do you really think we have an obligation to succour, aid, feed and keep alive those nations who have never created or added an iota to man’s stock of knowledge?” And even if he had not said this, my own self-respect suffers a shattering hurt whenever I enter a hospital and reflect that almost every potent life- saving medicament of today, from pencillin upwards, has been created without our share of input from any of us from the Muslim world.
As I have emphasised, Science is important because of the underlying understanding it provides of the world around us, of the immutable laws and of Allah’s design; it is important because of the material benefits and strength in defense and its discoveries can give us; it is important because of its universality. It could be a vehicle of co-operation for all mankind and in particular for the Islamic nations. We owe a debt to international Science, which, in all self-respect, we must discharge.
As Allah has promised, He does not let the efforts of those who strive, go waste. [–arabic verse–]
Let me end with the following prayer;
let no future historian record that in the fifteenth century of the Hijra, ‘Muslim scientific talent was there but there was a dearth of statesmen to marshal and nurture it.’