It is a little known fact that many of the brightest, well-known stars in the sky have Arabic names.
The luminous Aldebaran of Taurus, the majestic Rigel of the Orion constellation… the night sky is studded with shining reminders of an age where the early Muslim astronomers mapped the heavens and the Earth, and committed the knowledge to thousands of paper manuscripts and stored them in the world’s first public lending libraries.
In the early centuries following the Prophet’s death, Muslims made tremendous intellectual and scientific breakthroughs in areas as varied as astronomy, arts, science, math, philosophy and literature: a period accurately portrayed as the ‘Golden Age’ of Islam.
Referring to what he called “civilization’s debt to Islam”, US President Barack Obama said in his famous speech at Cairo University in June 2009, “It was Islam… that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance.”
From the pinnacle of scientific and intellectual achievement 800 years ago, the downward spiral of Muslims to outcasts of the knowledge society has been spectacular, and devastating.
Astronomy, like other scientific disciplines, is today largely the dominion of Western scientists. The Soviets fired man into space in 1961. NASA landed man on the moon in 1969.
Nearly five decades later, only one Islamic nation, Iran, has managed to even launch a domestic satellite – in 2009. Meanwhile, the Voyager 1 spacecraft, that left the Western hemisphere 33 years ago, continues to send back images from the farthest edges of the Solar System.
Statistics paint a bleak picture.
Out of every 10 students who attempt the O’Levels in the Maldives, only three achieve passing grades. Maldivian citizens have an average of a mere 4.7 years of schooling.
The Sachar Committee Report, commissioned by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2006 to evaluate the social status of Indian Muslims, revealed that 25 percent of Muslim children under 15 didn’t attend schools, or dropped out early, despite free public education. Muslims were way behind the curve in literacy as well.
By the 10th century, Islamic centres like Baghdad, Cairo, Cordoba and Tripoli boasted great libraries containing between 600,000 and 3 million volumes, but the UN Human Development Report 2010, which weighs in literacy as a development factor, records only five Muslim states among the top 50 countries on its index, and none in the top 30.
Muslims take pride in the fact that the Guinness Book recognises Al-Qarawiyyin University in Fez, Morocco as the world’s first university to issue degrees. Ironically, not a single university from a Muslim country figures in the top 100 Times Higher Education world university rankings for 2010.
Only nine Muslims have ever won a Nobel Prize. Out of a population of 1.57 billion, exactly two have won the science prizes. In comparison, Jewish scientists and intellectuals have racked up 178 Nobels.
Some insight into this dismal performance can perhaps be gleamed from the reception to Nobel laureates at home.
Dr Abdus Salam, who won the Physics Nobel in 1979, was deemed a heretic in his home country of Pakistan. Dr Salam was certainly devout – he quoted from the Qur’an in his acceptance speech – but he subscribed to the Ahmadi sect which was declared un-Islamic in Pakistan in 1974. Consequently, the epitaph on his grave was defaced, by court order, to remove the word ‘Muslim’. His tombstone now reads, quite inaccurately, ‘the first Nobel Laureate’.
In Iran, religious conservatives criticized Nobel Peace prize winner Shirin Ebadi, a Human Rights lawyer, for not covering her hair during the ceremony, and alleged that the award was a conspiracy to “ridicule Islam”. Following attacks and raids on her home and office, Ebadi fled Iran and now lives in exile in UK.
These are reasons, perhaps, why President Musharraf of Pakistan, observed in February 2002, “Today we are the poorest, the most illiterate, the most backward, the most unhealthy, the most un-enlightened, the most deprived, and the weakest of all the human race.”
Egyptian scientist Dr Ahmed Zewail, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1999, said in an interview that it was not Islam that prevented progress in the Muslim world, but “politicised Islamic scholars who profess that knowledge is restricted to the study of scriptures.”
Indeed, a study by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute of Pakistan found that the Curriculum Wing of the Ministry of Education, which is controlled by Deobandi Islamists, had altered school textbooks to include material that allegedly glorified war and incited violence against minorities.
A government proposal to introduce science subjects in Pakistani madrassas was met with hostility. The five madrassa boards formed an umbrella organization – the Ittehad Tanzimat-e-Madaris-e-Deenia (ITMD), which vowed to defy all government attempts at reforms.
Likewise, religious conservative parties in the Maldives objected strongly to plans by experts in the Ministry of Education to make Dhivehi and Islam subjects optional to senior Secondary students.
The Ministry argued that students should be free to focus on subjects that would help them get enrolled into Universities. Religious groups, however, accused the Ministry of “anti-Islamic” policies.
In September 2010, the Adhaalath party condemned government plans to introduce co-education in 4 schools. They claimed co-education was “a failed concept”. Incidentally, all of the Top 10 universities of 2010 were co-educational institutes.
Similar objections were raised by clerics in Saudi Arabia towards the inauguration the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology – a vast, new $10 billion dollar, co-educational institution.
Maulana Syed Kalbe Sadiq, a senior Indian Muslim cleric and Vice President of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board rejected this view. Noting that even co-worship was permissible during the Hajj, he stated there was no basis to deny co-education to Muslim students.
Speaking at Aligarh Muslim University in 2010, he said, “In the 21st century, only those who adopt high-level modern education will survive”.
The late Sheikh Tantawi, Egypt’s top cleric and the influential head of Al-Azhar University, ruled that Muslim girls in France should obey French Law and continue their education despite the ban on Hijabs, because sacrificing one’s education would be ‘the greater evil’.
Nevertheless, young Muslim girls continue to be kept at home by religious conservative families in Muslim countries, including the Maldives.
“Read!” -the archangel Gabriel’s first words to an illiterate prophet sparked the beginning of a movement which led to one of the greatest periods of human cultural achievement and enlightenment.
Muslims have a legacy of generating a volume of knowledge that, historians say, outweighs the combined works of ancient Greece and Rome.
That legacy of reason and science appears to have been overwhelmed by dogma in the 21st century. A culture that produced intellectuals of the calibre of Al-Farabi and Ibn Rushd is today more closely identified by gun-toting militants.
In the Maldives, it appears increasingly implausible that Islam might someday be represented less by Islamist preachers and more by scientists like Dr Hassan Ugail. But such a day, if it were to come, would pay rich obeisance to the legacy of learned Muslim ancestors.
It could be argued that such intellectuals are equally, if not more, deserving of the title ‘ilmuverin’, or ‘Scholars’.
Perhaps what it takes to fire up the uninspired young Muslim generation is a set of healthy intellectual role models to finally step in to inspire and guide them.
Alternatively, they could look up at the same Arabic stars that fascinated their cultural ancestors, and be inspired by the distant, faintly-glowing reminders of their fiery intellect from an age gone by.
Image: An astrolabe made in Yemen in 1291, an ancient ‘computer’ used to calculate time and triangulate location, relative to the sun and the stars. They were also used to determine the time for Salah (prayers).